wrestling / Columns

CM Punk & The WWE Health Care Controversy

December 1, 2014 | Posted by Wyatt Beougher

Introduction: Hey everyone, did you miss me? I apologize for my month-long sabbatical, but I was working anywhere from twelve to eighteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, for the past month, and it was all that I could do to get my 411 Fact or Fiction MMA column and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviews done and submitted. Thankfully, that project has wrapped up and it appears as though I’ve earned myself some well-deserved (in my mind at least) time off, so you might be seeing more of me around these parts than you’re used to, at least for the next few weeks. I knew I was going to be back this week, and there were a couple of topics I had planned to write about, and likely still will, from the awesome start of Lucha Underground and what the WWE can learn from them to the news of TNA’s new television deal and why that could be a huge positive for the company. But then CM Punk had to go and appear on Colt Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” podcast.

First things first, let me admit my feelings on CM Punk to hopefully brook any accusations of bias. I’ve been a CM Punk guy since sometime in 2005, when I bought a Best of Raven compilation on eBay that included almost the entirety of their RoH feud. I started binge watching as much Punk stuff as I could get (and, at that time, it was plenty easy to come by on eBay), and from the time his first vignette aired in ECW back in the summer of 2006, I was on board. I’ll also admit that, as a Punk fan, I noticed in the second half of 2013 when he seemed to lose interest in both his in-ring work and his interviews. In retrospect, taken with the context of what he said in the podcast, is it any wonder that the feud with Heyman, which should have featured the best verbal back-and-forth the WWE had seen in years, ended up coming off flat, especially after the introduction of Ryback as a Paul Heyman guy? Or that during his last six months or so of matches, Punk seemed so sloppy and unmotivated?

And now for a non-wrestling confession – in my “real world” job, I am a Health and Safety Professional for a major environmental remediation company, and the biggest part of my job is ensuring the continued health and well-being of the employees on the project that I am assigned to. What does that have to do with this story, you may ask? It gives me a pretty unique perspective on some of the claims that Punk made, and a bit of insight as to what that could mean for the WWE going forward, as least as far as OSHA is concerned. By no means am I promoting myself as the absolute authority on this matter; however, I do have real world experience in dealing with workplace injuries and illnesses. Also, by no means am I blindly accepting what Punk said at face value, as I have no way of knowing where the truth falls in relation to his story. As I mentioned, I have experience in dealing with workplace injuries and I know that incidents like Punk are describing almost always have multiple sides of the story, and often, the employee who was on the receiving end of the injury does their best to absolve themselves from any wrongdoing when they are relating the timeline of the incident. For the sake of discussion, though, I will take what Punk has said at face value and address what he has said as if it is the absolute truth.

MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a nasty little bacteria that has evolved from the normal staph virus to be resistant to the two major types of antibiotics that are normally used to treat staph infections, and, consequently, significantly harder to treat. This is the first instance where I feel like my work experience can translate into at least some insight on this situation, as last summer, I worked with a 34-year-old man who contracted MRSA after losing control of his ATV and getting a crabapple thorn embedded in his abdomen just below his breastbone. The man in question was in very good health, as he was 6’5”, 235 pounds, and worked out 4-5 days a week for at least an hour a day (some of the fun things you find out when you tag along with an employee for treatment).

I had worked with him for a nearly four months at that point, and he hadn’t so much as had a runny nose. He came back after a weekend at home looking tired and described the ATV accident and pulling the thorn out of his torso, and then going and getting an antibiotic the following day. At that point, being that it was not a work-related incident and believing that the medical treatment he had received had been sufficient, I made a note of it for his personnel file to follow up and see how he was feeling a few days later and went about my normal routine.

That Thursday, he reported to work looking distinctly unwell, and after our morning safety meeting, I pulled him aside to see how the wound was healing up. He admitted to me that it wasn’t doing well, pulled up his t-shirt, and removed the bandage, revealing a purplish-looking sore that was oozing pus. I loaded him into my vehicle and drove to the nearest emergency room, and it was on that trip that he admitted he’d been feverish and dizzy since the night before. At the hospital, his temperature had spiked to just under 105 degrees, he was severely dehydrated, and they diagnosed the infection as being MRSA. The hospital kept him overnight for observation, prescribed him a different type of antibiotic, and told him to take the rest of week off. Thankfully, he made a full recovery, but even with the antibiotics and the hospital stay, it was several weeks before he felt completely healthy again.

And that was after living with a MRSA infection for only five days! For Punk to have been working and travelling with that type of infection for months is appalling, and, if it is true, for me, that is the most damning aspect of anything that he said on his appearance on Cabana’s podcast, because I absolutely agree with the doctor that he saw after leaving the WWE, in that he very well could have died having left that type of infection untreated for so long. MRSA (and any infection in the Staph family, really) can actually spread throughout the body and create major, long-lasting health problems, and, depending on where the bump was located on his back, Punk was putting himself at risk for it spreading every time that he took a back bump, as whatever was keeping the pus contained to that area could have burst internally and allowed the infection to run rampant throughout his body. If Punk has any proof that Chris Amann actually repeatedly dismissed his concerns about the lump, then a malpractice suit would certainly be in order. And even if Punk chooses not to go that route, the WWE would be wise to terminate Amann at their earliest opportunity, rather than leaving themselves open to yet another class action lawsuit from former employees independent contractors.

Another area where Punk’s words rang especially true with me – he believes that WWE was concerned about him taking them to court over the independent contractor issue and changing the way that they do business. That is something that I’ve always been unsure how they’ve managed to avoid for as long as they have, because as far as Occupational Safety & Health Administration is concerned, WWE talent are almost assuredly not independent contractors. The easiest-to-understand example that I was able to find to highlight the difference comes directly from OSHA’s website and it uses the example of a nail salon to lay out the difference between independent contractors and employees. Basically, in the eyes of OSHA, an employee is an independent contractor if they: pay for space to work at their venue of choice, purchase their own supplies and tools, have their own customers/schedule/appointments, set their own rates, and are paid by customers directly. On the other hand, if their employer sets their work schedule, controls the venue where they work, sets the rates paid by customers, and owns the tools and equipment used by the employee, they are considered employees. Especially worth noting on that page is the following passage: “It doesn’t matter how an individual is labeled by the salon owner. Instead, courts and agencies will look at a list of factors to determine whether you are an employee or independent contractor.”

To me, the WWE is getting the best of both worlds here, as they set the work schedules and venues, set the rates paid by customers for admission and concessions, and own the stages, rings, and props used by the wrestlers, which would certainly seem to designate them as employees. However, the WWE still requires them to pay the vast majority of their travel costs, find their own health and life insurance, and don’t offer financial planning or retirement options, which is more fitting the independent contractor designation. Former WWE wrestlers Scott Levy (Raven), Chris Klucsarits (Kanyon), and Mike Sanders tried to challenge this and get WWE’s on-air talent classified as employees and gain health insurance, but their lawsuit was dismissed in 2010 because the statute of limitations had expired. If someone like Punk, who has not been separated from the company for even a year yet, were to champion the cause, I think there is a very strong possibility that the WWE would have to change the way that they do business.

As someone who travels, I can attest that if the WWE were forced to reclassify their talent as employees, the cost of their travel alone would skyrocket, between travel expenses and per diem. And that’s barely scratching the surface, as, at least for my company, insurance and financial planning expenses dwarf travel expenses annually. But I am not a federal judge or mediator and I do not claim to know the intricacies of the laws (and their loopholes) regarding employee classification, so allow me to return to matters I am more familiar with.

If what Punk says is true, and he did pass the WWE’s concussion test while texting Colt Cabana and listening to music through headphones, it is time for the company to update their protocol. Just as we have talked about in Fact or Fiction MMA a few times over the past few months regarding various fighters’ domestic violence cases and how they have come under more of a microscope in light of the turmoil surrounding the NFL and their handling of the Ray Rice incident, I honestly do not feel like it is too much of a stretch to assume that the WWE needs to follow the NFL’s example and strengthen their concussion protocol. Punk’s allegations are potentially more damning in light of the recent lawsuit filed by former talent Billy Jack Haynes alleging the promotion concealed the long-term effects of concussions from their talent. Haynes will likely have an uphill battle in trying to prove his case, as the in-depth research into concussions and their long-term effects really had not been done during Haynes tenure with the then-WWF back in 1986-1988.

With Punk, though, his allegations relate to the current calendar year, after WWE alumnus Christopher Nowinski has spent several years as the head of the Sports Legacy Institute leading the charge in concussion research. Similarly, WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt spent years trying to discredit the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who performed the autopsy on Chris Benoit after his death and determined from examining Benoit’s brain that he was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Omalu said Benoit’s brain looked like that of an elderly dementia patient, and CTE is believed to be caused by repeated brain trauma, with the latest studies suggesting that both concussive and sub-concussive impact can contribute to the long-term effects.

If what Punk laid out is true, not just about the concussions but also about the rib and knee injuries that he worked through, it would prove to be another black mark on the reputation of the WWE’s Wellness Policy, which has already been criticized by the lack of transparency and consistency shown in dealing with performers who fail drug tests. With Randy Orton’s lack of suspension for being a customer of Signature Pharmacy and being named as such in Sports Illustrated acting as the biggest example of a wrestler getting a free pass because the WWE had time and/or money and/or a push invested in him, is it really all that surprising that they’d fast track the return of someone like Punk, who was a proven merchandise mover and could be slotted in pretty much anywhere on the card?

Again, drawing from my occupational experience, in order to limit our liability in any kind of lawsuit, my company has a comprehensive medical surveillance program that includes annual employee examinations, random drug testing, site-specific requirements depending on which chemicals or substances we expect our employees to encounter, and a post-injury/illness treatment and follow-up program. Unlike the WWE, all of that is delegated to a third party, a healthcare company that maintains all of our records and ensures that our employees comply with both the OSHA requirements and those of our corporate health and safety program. If an employee is injured or becomes ill as a result of work and they require medical treatment, we don’t allow them to return to work until they can provide medical clearance from an outside doctor, and it is my belief that the WWE would be wise to implement a similar program, not just to mitigate their liability in the future, but also to protect their wrestlers.

And I think that is really the most important thing here, and one that seems to get overlooked by all of the people pointing fingers and either rushing to support CM Punk or rushing to discredit him: Phil Brooks is, for all intents and purposes, done with professional wrestling, so the damage that’s been done to him, regardless of whose fault it was, has been done. But what about all of the talent that is currently under WWE contract and performing on a nightly basis? If what Punk said turns more scrutiny towards the WWE and/or forces them to improve their Wellness Program so that current and future talent are better taken care of and situations like Punk’s aren’t repeated in the future, isn’t that something that we as wrestling fans should get behind, regardless of how we feel about the guy?

I know that as a Punk fan, that is a legacy that I would be comfortable with him leaving behind. And it sure as hell means more to me than him main eventing Wrestlemania.

Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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WWE, Wyatt Beougher