SLAM! Wrestling Editorial: When a contract is not a contract
By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling
The biggest wrestling story so far this year has been the 'WCW Radicals' and their arrival in the WWF. The circumstances surrounding their departure has sparked candid, colourful debate among wrestling fans as to whether it was right for Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn to have been released from their contracts.
We here at SLAM! Wrestling are not immune from taking part in this debate. Most of us are professional journalists, paid to cover the pro wrestling industry with the highest standard of objectivity, but underneath it all we're still fans. We live and breathe wrestling, and when a development like this comes along, sometimes we can't help but offer our own personal opinion. Such is the case now.
It's not often I find myself disagreeing so vehemently with one of my SLAM! Wrestling colleagues, but after reading Eric Benner's column last week
, I feel compelled to offer a rebuttal to his comments regarding The Radicals and their departure from the WWF to WCW.
Benner makes the argument that the Radicals should not have been granted their release because they have a valid contract with WCW. He argues that even though the wrestlers did not approve of Kevin Sullivan's appointment to head WCW booker, that did not give them the right to refuse to work under him and ask for their releases. After all, they are still employees of WCW.
Writes Benner: "A contract is a contract. There's just no getting around that fact. You sign your name on the dotted line, and you're responsible for keeping to whatever that contract says you've got to do. If you don't, then you can (and should) be sued."
If only it were that easy of an answer. Eric's simplistic argument contends that this is a cut and dried issue of right and wrong. It isn't. What he fails to realize is that nothing in wrestling is ever black and white; there are always shades of grey.
A contract is only as strong and valid as those who execute it. It's up to the employer to take a hard-line stance and enforce the terms of that contract. When they don't and they decide to meet the demands of a contracted employee who isn't happy, it's inevitable that other employees will step forward and try to get away with something as well.
And that is exactly what we have here. WCW has a long track record of bowing to the whims of their employees; employees who are under contract and who should automatically comply with the demands of management, according to Benner.
I ask you, when Kevin Nash, Curt Hennig, Buff Bagwell, Diamond Dallas Page and Lex Luger have complained about doing jobs in the past, refused to participate with storylines they didn't like or question management's judgement in any way, weren't they violating their contract?
Do you ever remember WCW taking disciplinary action against any of them? Were any of them ever suspended? The answer is no. Each time, WCW rolled over and caved into their demands, working out a compromise with them.
Here's another example: When WCW wrestlers were doing everything to avoid working house shows, instead of holding them to their contracts that required them to wrestle, WCW choose to offer additional money to those wrestlers who would work the tour. Think about that for a minute: Even though these guys were under contract and we're required to work house shows, they still tried to get out of it. WCW's solution? Offer them more money to perform duties they were contractually obligated to perform. Does that sound crazy to anybody else?
WCW rolled over then, wanting to avoid any strife with the talent. A clear message was sent to the wrestlers: If you don't like something, just complain about it enough and we'll work something out.
So, why then Eric, should the Radicals be held to a different standard than everybody else? Questioning authority is how the game is played in WCW -- rules that WCW management have clearly established and decided to play by before. Why should we fault the Radicals for trying to throw some muscle around?
Benner writes that 'the Radicals' "were able to strong-arm WCW into giving them their releases" and that "WCW wrestlers in general treat their contracts like vague agreements."
Nobody strong armed anybody. The Radicals approached Bill Busch about the Sullivan situation with hopes of trying to resolve the problem and if it couldn't ,they were asking for their release. They tried to work out a compromise that at one point Busch apparently agreed to Sullivan only booking WCW Saturday Night, a show that the Radicals would not have to work.
That's hardly a strong arm tactic. WCW had all the leverage, a binding contract, and the Radicals had no legal leg to stand on. How is it possible for them to strong arm WCW in this situation? WCW had all the power.
And as for the WCW talent treating their contracts like vague agreements, that's only because WCW is guilty of the same thing. That is exactly how WCW does business. This whole thing started when WCW relieved Russo of his duties after only three months, even though they promised him he had six months to turn around the company. Can we really fault the Radicals for treating their contracts like vague agreements when they are simply following the example set for them by WCW?
Eric goes on to write that "There's no way Bill Busch could ever have let them stay (at the Nitro taping after Souled Out). They'd already declared their dislike for WCW and that they were walking, so letting them go out on television could potentially be suicide. They could make a mockery on live television, in front of a live audience, and buried their own company."
Eric obviously doesn't know these gentlemen very well. Having spoken to Eddie Guerrero several times I can attest to the fact he is one of the classiest and straight up individuals in the business. His integrity has never been questioned by anybody. All four men are noted for their professionalism and for the way they conduct themselves. Furthermore, do you honestly think they would go and bury WCW in light of the fact they were trying to get released from their contract? If WCW wanted any more reason to not give them one, aside from having a legal contract, burying the company would have been one.
Benner continues: "In addition, (Sullivan has) stated on the record that he thinks only the big, old guys should be pushed, and also that he'd bury the under card. To boot, he's told each member of the so-called Radicals (save perhaps Guerrero, who was released for other reasons) on numerous occasions that they would never get a push under him."
Guerrero released for other reasons? Huh? What other reasons? Having spoken to Eddie about this, and having heard comments he made during an interview with The LAW, I can tell you that is exactly the reason why he asked for his release. He could clearly see the handwriting on the wall and decided to take an active approach to resolving this situation. It appears here that Benner is guilty of using mere speculation as opposed to hardened facts to support his argument.
Another point I'd like to address. Benner writes: "Tell me something. If Chris Benoit broke his leg, healed, but was never the same again, would he go to the offices in Atlanta and give them a cheque for what he feels is the portion of his salary he didn't earn? Of course not. He'd keep it, because that was the deal. And I'd totally agree with him."
To think that Benoit should keep the money in this situation because he had a deal is only one reason. Why should Chris Benoit give back money because of an injury he sustained in the ring while working for WCW? He goes out every night and gives 100 per cent, which is a lot more than I can say for some in WCW (read Nash, Hall, Luger, Hogan). That is the real reason why he should keep the money.
Even if he wasn't up to his old self, Benoit still earned his salary simply by wrestling for WCW and putting himself at risk each and every night he wrestles. If Benoit or any wrestler gets hurt in the ring, it's up to them to play their medical bills. Wrestlers don't have a company-paid medical insurance plan. If WCW wants to pay, in whole or in part, for the medical treatment of an injured wrestler, they can. BUT, they are not contractually obligated to do so.
In fact, WCW has demonstrated in the past that sustaining an injury will often get you a pink slip from the company. Ricky Steamboat, Steve Austin and Davey Boy Smith were all let go after sustaining injuries inside the ring while working for WCW. So, why should any wrestler feel bad about cashing his entire pay cheque if he's not up to his old standards?
The answer is they shouldn't. Each night wrestlers put their bodies and health at risk for their company. Any injuries they sustain in the ring and the subsequent treatment of those injuries should be covered by the employer. That's how it works in the private sector. It should be no different for wrestlers. They earn their pay cheque. And to suggest they owe something to the promoter just because they aren't up to their old standards is simply ludicrous.
Benner goes on to ask "if Chris Benoit became the next Goldberg, held the entire company on his shoulders, and saved the federation, would he deserve more money? That would be up to WCW, but they certainly wouldn't have to pay him any more."
No they wouldn't. They would not be contractually obligated to do so. You would think they would take a stand similar to the Ottawa Senators in dealing with the demands of Alexei Yashin and hold an employee to the terms of a binding contract.
But WCW hasn't done that either. When Goldberg became the hottest thing in wrestling, and was in the midst of a multi-year contract, he pulled a power play, choose to sit out and renegotiated his contract and secured more money for himself. Once again, WCW caved in.
WCW has a history of bending to the whims of their workers. It's a pattern that's clearly been documented. So again I ask, why should the Radicals be held to a different standard? You can't fault them for trying to do what they did. All they're really guilty of is getting in on the same action that several of their co-workers have gotten in on before.
Benner continues: "Sure, maybe they wouldn't be as into it, and maybe they'd cause turmoil in the locker room, which Bill Busch clearly wants to avoid. But tell me what's worse -- some disgruntled workers in the locker room, or a whole bunch of disgruntled workers sitting at home because they know they can."
Look around the locker room, Eric. Everybody is disgruntled in WCW. Do you think four more disgruntled workers will make any difference?
Benner writes: "And sure the Fab Four will be good for the WWF, and will certainly be better off than buried in a Sullivan under card, but ultimately, I wouldn't hire them. Would you?"
Damn straight I would. Without even giving it a second thought. Chris Benoit is the best wrestler in North America today. Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko are two of the best pure wrestlers in wrestling. It's good business to sign talent like that.
Eric's opinion towards the unhappiness of the Radicals can be summed up in one simple line he wrote: "I say tough luck."
Benner's glib, unsympathetic tone is troubling because it goes to the heart of what is wrong with pro wrestling today. The wrestlers are at the mercy of the owners and promoters and have no power base to work from. Benner makes it sound like a contract gives WCW the ultimate power, setting up a state of indentured servitude where the talent can never question management.
It's that type of attitude and environment that may have in some way led to the tragic death of Owen Hart. Owen had fears about the stunt that took his life and had he spoken up and tried to get out of it, lord knows he might still be with us today.
Instead of condemning the WCW Radicals, we should be applauding them for having the strength of their convictions and principals to walk out on a guaranteed money contract. They believed in Vince Russo and did not stand passively by when he was demoted. Instead, they put their money, literally, where their mouth was and took a stand.
That is what we call character. Something that is all too often lacking in this business. Something that should be celebrated, not chastised.