"TNA would never sign a talent, or allow a talent to be in a situation to harm themselves more than the risk each of these guys takes every time they step into the ring. I truly believe that every TNA wrestler, referee, broadcaster and front-office employee knows that their health and their family come first." Dixie Carter, in a 2006 interview with TNAWrestling.com
Around 6 months ago, while researching this article I expressed shock to a good friend of mine, who is also a wrestling fan, about the huge disparity between TNA’s warm and fuzzy public image and how they conducted their business behind closed doors. In response to this, he made a comment that has remained with me ever since:
"That part doesn’t surprise me. Remember, Dixie was in public relations before she was in wrestling. And everything there is 100% image and how people see you. So; she has this image of the nice suburban mom who truly cares about her wrestlers, but in reality is getting away with business tactics that most would consider vile. And Vince McMahon has the image of the evil, corporate boss, but in real-life has done way more than she ever has to take care of wrestlers."
This is extremely accurate. And make no mistake about it: TNA's image has been carefully crafted over the years to present the Nashville-based company as the polar opposite of the heartless, corporate WWE, a company in which backstabbing and politics run amuck and performers are often forced to conform to the rigid status quo if they want to remain employed. ("They wouldn't let me chew gum!" bewailed the new champ Ken Anderson in a promo after winning the title; interestingly, it was actually the second time he recorded that promo, as those in power decided the first version didn't have enough digs at WWE. Seriously.) If we are to believe TNA's narrative, they are the plucky underdogs; a family-oriented company with a ton of heart fighting against a ruthless billion-dollar giant; and, most importantly, they treat their beloved employees with the utmost respect and dignity- a notion completely lost on that dastardly Vince McMahon (Boo! Hiss!) and his gang of hellish acolytes.
Furthermore, I recently came across an old Jerry Jarrett interview from 2002 with Wade Keller, in which he insists that wrestlers in TNA are true independent contractors, and accentuates the freedom TNA (unlike our evil WWE overlords) allow their performers to have.
"We don’t want to own wrestlers. We will be the first company since the old territory days that respects each talent as truly an independent contractor. We don’t plan to own anybody. We will sign them for a specific number of dates. We are not going to be a traditional wrestling company to where we have to book guys on a continuing basis to say, "We’ll get you 100 dates, or 150 dates, or 200 dates." We’re saying to people that they are absolutely free and encouraged to wrestle for anybody when they’re not on those dates… They are independent contractors, truly independent contractors."
Jerry may be long gone from the company, but many in TNA still parrot this talking point. As I noted here, this is a complete fabrication. TNA exert just as much control over the performers as WWE do. Indeed TNA is actually considerably worse: WWE at least pay good wages to justify their talent not working elsewhere; TNA, on the other hand, have become known for paying peanuts to wrestlers to perform for them, but then actively sabotaging their outside dates. More after the jump.
Notably, even some of Jeremy Borash's early NWA TNA website columns in 2002 that I stumbled across while researching this article, emphasizes this point: Borash goes out of his way to continually stress the warm, family-like atmosphere and the fact that TNA's prioritizes the health of their wrestlers, above all else, for example insisting that A.J Styles will be given "whatever times he needs to recover" when Styles went down with a minor injury.
Another priceless example comes courtesy of a 2007 interview/vanity piece Dixie Carter did with Lilsboys of The Sun newspaper. Raving that "Dixie Carter must be every wrestler's dream true," they go on to say: "The grap game is known for its unscrupulous small-time promoters at the small end of the scale, and ruthless WWE boss Vince McMahon at the other. But the TNA president is determined to act like neither and brings a more caring, feminine side what has always been a brutal business." How a boss who refuses to pay for basic work-related injuries and paid one champion so little she had to work a minimum wage job at Sunglass Hut is "every wrestler's dream come true" is completely baffling to me, but nevermind. Interestingly, one half of the duo, Simon Rothstein currently works in the TNA U.K office having left his job with The Sun for a position with them. Oh, well: it's not like The Sun had any journalistic integrity to lose anyway. This interview is also notable for Carter claiming: "The ultimate responsibility for everything in this company is mine and I take that very seriously...I want TNA to be a differen t type of wrestling company. We work a much lighter schedule than WWE which allows our wrestlers to protect their bodies and lengthen their careers...I take our guy's health very seriously." She also claimed on her youshoot that TNA, in contrast to Vince McMahon presumably, had "made money, and with integrity." That Ms Carter-Salinas manages to say all these things with a straight face suggests that she perhaps has far better acting ability than her segments on TNA:iMPACT would indicate.
For the record, it must be pointed out that the much-vaunted "lighter schedule" of TNA is, at this point, little more than a myth. There is a very interesting interview with A.J Styles and Jeremy Borash here in which the topic of conversation turns to TNA’s "light" schedule. A visibly annoyed A.J Styles reveals, in something you would perhaps expect to hear out of John Cena or The Miz, or any other extremely busy WWE name: "I don’t know who it’s lighter for, to be honest with you. It bothers me when people say that about me because I’m always on the road…I mean, aside from being hurt the first part of the year, I’m always on the road." Jeremy Borash (hilariously, only just fresh off parroting the usual shtick about company’s lighter schedule) also chimes in: "I’ve been home four days since Thanksgiving." This interview took place in early February. Indeed, considering TNA house shows are reportedly the only area of the company that perform well and make money, it seems clear that there will be a time soon when most TNA wrestlers are working the same hectic schedule that WWE wrestlers do. With the main differences being that at least WWE guys are fairly compensated for the work they do, and, were they to get injured on one of these numerous house shows, be given appropriate care and not have to worry about getting stuck with a huge hospital bill.
Recently, Mike Mooneyham, a well-known wrestling journalist and close friend of Ric Flair’s, also noted to Ring Rap Radio's Mike Sempervive the disjuncture between TNA’s cosy family image, and their more sordid business tactics, when giving Flair’s side of the story of the European Tour debacle. Upon returning to the states Flair relayed to Mooneyham that Kurt Angle had faced significant pressure from Dixie and others in TNA management to stay for the first show on the European tour after he got the news that his heavily pregnant girlfriend Giovanna had passed out due to high pressure and been rushed to hospital, with the doctors deciding to prematurely induce labour, fearing for the lives of her and her unborn child. Mooneyham claimed that Kurt (who got back just after his daughter was born) could have left much earlier than he did and made it to Giovanna’s side to be there for the birth, but TNA, perhaps worried about the big names, like A.J Styles, they had already lost for the tour, were hesitant to give him permission to leave (even in a potentially life-threatening situation) and wanted him to be a special guest referee for at least one show Lyon, France. Happily, Giovanna and her child are now doing well, but it’s anecdotes like this (even if we consider Flair may have been mad at the company) that make fans question just what type of a "family" TNA is. The Manson family, perhaps?
So, bearing all this in mind, let's not kid ourselves: Those in power in TNA would almost certainly prefer that their shadier business tactics remain a secret and unknown to fans; thankfully, these stories have leaked out over time, illuminating fans and wrestlers alike, and the company's image has become decidedly sullied in recent times as tales of side jobs, low pay and lack of proper care for wrestlers continually emerge and saturate the blogosphere. Of course, all this didn't stop head cheerleader Jeremy Borash taking the opportunity to gloat about TNA's supposed moral superiority over Vince McMahon and WWE in December after Kaval was released from the company a few days before Christmas. (It later emerged that Kaval had asked for his release, and was more than happy to leave, as he was feeling frustrated with his position in the company.) Rather than waiting to find out the details, an obnoxious Borash, seemingly under the delusion that TNA harboured a spotless reputation in the industry, tweeted: "Very grateful to work for a company that gives out bonus checks at Christmas, rather than release papers." He was rightfully skewered for these remarks, with most of the responses dredging up TNA's own history of mistreatment (Roxxi's despicable firing in May 2010, low pay towards performers and forcing wrestlers to pay their own medical bills being the subjects that made up the bulk of the tweets.) Borash tweeted no more on the matter, nor did he attempt to defend TNA against these criticisms, and quickly moved on, tweeting about other subjects. I also sent him a critical tweet, asking: "After all the stories about wrestler mistreatment in TNA that have come out, what gives you the right to say anything about how WWE treats its wrestlers? TNA make Vince look like Mother Teresa." Fortunately, I did not then receive a message wishing death upon my entire family.
An intriguing interview with former TNA wrestler Matt Bentley (he had actually been released from his contract a day or two before the interview) was brought to my attention recently. This interview was conducted in August of 2007 with F4Wonline's Bryan Alvarez, and considering the timing of the interview (the Benoit tragedy had happened two months before, and congress had announced their intentions to investigate the drug policies of TNA and WWE) Alvarez asked Bentley: "So how many times have you been drug tested?" "Zero!" laughed Bentley. This directly contradicts an interview Dixie Carter gave to TNAwrestling.com in 2006 in which Carter insisted: "TNA Wrestling has a very strict drug and alcohol policy, and each contracted talent signs an acknowledgement of the policy set forth. Drug use and alcohol abuse are issues we take very seriously...Violations of the policy are spelled out and failure to comply or failure of a test can result in mandatory drug counselling and treatment, suspension from work without pay, up to and including dismissal." Aside from this, which shouldn't be surprising for anyone who has even a modicum of knowledge about TNA and how they run their company, Bentley then went on to make a shocking claim:
"Yeah…There’s no (drug) testing. And until recently…we only just got tested for blood work. Which I think is long past due…you know, the amount of diseases and stuff. And you’re asked to bleed on somebody, you don’t know what your talent has…you know, somebody is carrying something, they’re liable to give to someone else…(that was) the only testing that has ever been done, and that was four or five months ago."
This is disturbing for a few reasons. First of all, TNA has been in existence since mid- 2002, were bought by billion-dollar corporation Panda Energy a few months later , been a national and televised presence since 2004, and by 2007, had had an amazing number of garbage brawls, first-blood matches and plenty of other blood-heavy gimmick matches (Abyss, in particular, became famous for cutting and mutilating himself to a disturbing degree for the entertainment of fans during this period) but, despite all this, they only started blood testing in 2007!? Secondly, let's face it: wrestling is a business where promiscuity and drug use run rampant. For a national promotion to go as long as TNA did allowing guys to bleed all over each without some kind of testing is absolute madness. This becomes even more staggering when you consider that TNA as a company has actively and aggressively punished wrestlers in the past for being unwilling to blade. In their feud with Team 3D and Johnny Devine, Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley had their feud and pushes quickly nixed and were both shoved down the card reportedly because both refused to juice as part of the storyline. Some rumours even leaked out that both were fined by the office for their refusal to go along with the script.
Moving on, the issue of medical bills has been a long-standing problem in TNA. From best I can tell, it seems to have been a problem in the earlier days of the company too (The Torch reported in 2003 that at least one wrestler was complaining to everyone that would listen that he had not been reimbursed for an injury he had suffered and had to get treatment for; there were other similar reports too.) Of course, the issue really bubbled to the surface in mid-2007 when Dave Meltzer outed them for paying for Ron Killings knee surgery (for an injury Killings got in a third party booking) and then demanding to a stunned Killings that he pay them back in full. Scuttlebutt was, people in management were furious this got out and tried to deny it, although pretty much everyone in the industry who wasn't towing the TNA line admitted Meltzer's report was accurate. It was anger over this, as well as personal issues with some powerful higher-ups in TNA, that led to Ron leaving the warm, fuzzy TNA Family and going to work for that immoral, hideous, eater of puppies and small children and completely-evil-in-every-possible-way Vince McMahon (Boo! Hiss!).
The argument that TNA should not be forced to pay for an injury Killings got while wrestling elsewhere did not ring true either: TNA booked him on the show, and took a percentage of the money- technically, he was still working for them and making them money when he got hurt. Additionally, Scott Steiner also suffered an injury working a third party booking around this time that the company did pay for (For the record, it's not so much that TNA's pays for no-one's injuries, but it seems to depend mainly on your connections-Scott is a good friend of Jarrett's- and your position on the card. I don't, for example, think Jeff Hardy would be sent a big bill in the event he gets hurt wrestling for them. But generally, they don't.) Then Konnan, in the wake of his litany of injuries in 2007 angrily left TNA because they refused to pay for his kidney or hip operation, only offering to lend him the cash which, of course, he would be expected to pay back. In an interview with Wrestling Observer Live in July 2007 Konnan discussed the issues he had with TNA regarding his medical bills. He acknowledged the criticism that he had some of his health problems before TNA, but insisted that while he had troubles with his hip prior to joining TNA, he had worsened it considerably wrestling for them; therefore it was not unreasonable for them to pay for it. Konnan also hinted there was considerable racial tension in TNA (something that would became a major factor later.) Additionally, Konnan noted on the show that wrestlers in TNA (who didn't make much anyway) were greatly angered when TNA stopped paying for their hotel rooms because of what they claimed were budget issues- and then signed Sting to a whopping $10,000 a week deal, even though he didn't work house shows and made little difference to the ratings.
And while we're on the subject of wasteful spending; throughout the financial disputes Killings and Konnan had with TNA, it was noted by several observers that, while TNA were pleading poverty to wrestlers and saying they couldn't pay outright for work-related medical care, Dixie had actually set aside $1 million dollars for the Voodoo Kin Mafia's DX challenge (as part of the utterly outrageous work/shoot angle in which Kip and James put up $1 million and offered to fight DX on live television). Dave Meltzer reported at the time that Carter hilariously had been convinced the match would happen, and was even going around and asking people the following week why WWE hadn't answered the challenge yet. Why exactly TNA haven't ever set aside a similar amount of money for pesky things like liveable wages, hospital check-ups and paying for guys' operations is something only Dixie could answer.
Indeed, the absolute absurdity of the situation became even clearer in an astonishing interview Survivor star Jonny Fairplay (Remember him? Me neither) gave to USA Today here discussing his TNA earnings:
"I signed a $150,000 contract with TNA Wrestling for a year. I ended up 8 appearances for 40 minutes. Then I signed a second contract and they didn't use me. So, I'd like to thank them for $300,000 for 40 minutes' worth of work."
Fairplay later revealed he had been given health insurance too. Wonderful. So for those of you keeping track: the same company with a sizeable portion of the roster working day jobs to make a decent living, that doesn't pay for its wrestlers to get checked out at the hospital and refused their (proven) top ratings draws Gail Kim and Awesome Kong liveable wages (choosing to instead release them and allow them to go to WWE) paid Jonny Fairplay $300,000 for 40 minutes' work.
Of course, the real fuss was kicked up when Konnan filed a lawsuit against TNA in March 2008 mainly due to their unwillingness to pay his bills, but also making a laundry list of salacious accusations against high-ranking members of management, including notably Jeff Jarrett (rumour has it, at least part of the problems between Jeff and Dixie, and what led to Jeff getting sent home for a while, apart from the Karen Angle scandal, were because of what was dredged up about Jeff and his friends in this lawsuit.) Indeed, as Jason Powell noted at the time: "Among the allegations included are drug use by at least one office worker, as well as racial discrimination—including the use of racial slurs by at least two members of the office staff. The lawsuit also includes a claim that Konnan received prescription drugs from at least two office workers." Powell also added that the lawsuit had the potential to be a "public relations disaster for TNA."
TNA eventually settled with Konnan (although those in the company first insisted it had simply been dropped because Konnan didn’t have a case; it was later confirmed Konnan had received a sizable money settlement, reported to be about $1 million dollars.) So, why did TNA settle? Did they feel that it would be impossible for them to justify not paying an employee’s medical bills in a trial setting? Was there some other reason? Bill Behrens, who was head of live events and third party bookings at the time, and still maintains strong ties with the company, in his December 8th "Who’s Slamming Who" podcast hinted that it was because TNA feared what would come out: "(they paid out because of) what was found… even in the initial discovery process…" The subject came up because Bill was warning TNA about how they foolishly left themselves open to litigation with their irresponsible behaviour. This was the infamous podcast in which Bill warned TNA about turning a blind eye to Jeff Hardy’s problems and allowing him to wrestle impaired; Bill later recanted his comments, insisting they had been distorted, when they blew up huge all over the internet. The podcast has since been taken down. For the record, Jason Powell, in the #1137 edition of the PWTorch Newsletter, also warned the company about potential lawsuits, although he was talking about the situation with the women in TNA and pay. Noting that the company had chosen to release Awesome Kong rather than give her a 15% pay raise that she had asked for (Kong was making $400 a match) Powell said: "They also appear to be leaving themselves vulnerable to a class action lawsuit if enough of the female performers decide to take action over the compensation they receive compared to the men, particularly when the women's segments typically do high television ratings." That Dixie Carter and Hulk Hogan have frequently acknowledged in radio and television interviews that the women do the highest rated segments of TNA:iMPACT certainly doesn’t help matters.
Additionally, Dave Meltzer also railed against what he saw as TNA callousness and stupidity in these matters on his radio show after the sickening Rob Terry chair shot in early April. That clip can be found here . A transcript of the exchange:
Bryan: We had Homicide and Rob Terry…what a tribute to Chris Kanyon this was- with the hard, unprotected chair shot to the head, just destroying a chair, busting the guy open the hard way… this just pissed me off to an amazing degree.
Dave (groaning): It pissed me off too because it’s just, you know, it is one thing to be really bad at what you do; it’s another thing to be really ignorant and in power. This was just…whoever made this call…seriously; whoever made this call should be fired. In this day and age…to do that in a pro wrestling ring? It is f***ing bull****.
Bryan: They should be banished from this business.
Dave: No, seriously, whoever, I don’t know, whose call it was but whoever made this call, you know, and scripted that thing, or let it happen, if an agent did it, or whatever, but whoever did that, they should be fired from wrestling. That’s incompetence; it can get the company sued-which they’re so stupid they don’t even realize. If something happened to one of these guys now based on knowledge that we have now, and he goes and sues the company for scripting it… he’d win in a heartbeat! Any jury would see that…it’s just, I mean, I know they have it in their contracts that you can’t sue for that stuff, it’s in the contract that you can’t, but it doesn’t matter because if someone did…you know what I’m saying: no jury in the world look at that clip and go...like, you know, ‘in this industry, after what happened with Chris Benoit, after what happened with Andrew Martin’s brain…you allowed someone to take a chair shot like that …in 2010?’ They’re just opening themselves up to ridiculous litigations…I mean, aside from the issue of the guy’s health, I mean the issue of just running a business like this…they're so freaking stupid. You know they do a lot of things that are stupid, but this was- this was- well-beyond."
Dave would later reveal the details on the chairshot on his radio show, and then in his newsletter, a few days later. It had indeed been in the script, with Eric Bischoff (whose cynicism of fan and wrestler concern about chairshots is well-known by now) who had pushed for Terry, a wrestler he was extremely high on at the time, insisting on including the chairshot on the show, apparently feeling it would get Terry over huge (it didn’t by the way.). According to Dave, there were actually people in TNA management reluctant to do it, citing the studies on Chris Nowinski and how much the business had changed after the Benoit tragedy, and it was something heavily debated backstage. Ultimately, in the end, it was Dixie’s call. And, according to this version of the story, what did she do after hearing the arguments amongst management about all the studies and colossal risks these head shots posed to wrestlers? Well, she told Bischoff he could do whatever he wanted. TNA’s Hard Justice PPV (about which an irate Shane Douglas would later complain in an interview with World Wrestling Insanity, that many of the former ECW wrestlers told him they were only paid $250 for their matches) was also littered with chair shots and packed with wreckless and barbaric spots. This was also the event where Tommy Dreamer, apparently auditioning for a role in Beyond the Mat 2, even brought his two young daughters to ring side to watch him get sliced up in his match with Raven.
TNA have since smartened up; and according to several interviews that Mr Anderson did shortly after his devastating concussion at the hands of Jeff Hardy (Hardy botched a chair shot meant to be aimed at Anderson’s back but, in another moment of sloppiness that he’s become famous for in his TNA career, ended up striking Anderson on the back of the head instead) have now completely banned chair shots to the head. While this is an encouraging sign, it does not excuse TNA’s grotesque behaviour earlier in the year either. The studies of Chris Nowinski were not a secret or under-publicised when the Rob Terry chairshot was scripted; and, as noted, it appears at least some people in management knew enough to argue with Bischoff about the matter. So, were they ever to find themselves in a trial situation, like the scenario Meltzer mapped out, what could they possibly say to defend themselves?
Furthermore, considering TNA’s troubling history in this subject area, and their refusal to pay for check-ups, this news makes me wonder how much TNA, for all of Dixie’s posturing, truly are taking these matters seriously. For example, Angelina Love (who, as leader of The Beautiful People, has been one of company's established ratings draws for years now) noted in a 2009 interview found here that she had suffered a very serious concussion at the TNA Lockdown PPV that had just taken place. (This was the in the triple threat cage match with Awesome Kong and Taylor Wilde for the TNA women's championship, in which Love landed wrong, hit her head and was completely out of it for the rest of the match. With things quickly turning into a shambles, Taylor then improvised a finish on the fly, so Love could win the Knockouts title as scripted. Despite the quick-thinking Taylor's best efforts, the finish still looked awful: Love could barely do anything, and even standing and smiling with the title at the end seemed beyond her.) Love herself confirms this in the interview: "I was pretty much carried by four security guards to the trainer’s office. I was completely blacked out. I don’t even remember winning." The interviewer then notes that TNA put her in a match two days later. Love, who has a history of suffering bad concussions, confirmed this, as well as noting: "You've got to make a living, so I was doing indie shows about 5 days later. It probably wasn’t too safe…" This story threw up several troubling questions in my mind: Why did TNA put her in a match so soon after what was a fairly serious head injury? What doctor in their right mind told her to get back in the ring just two days after suffering such a severe concussion? Did she even go see a doctor? Could she have afforded to see one?
So, as one horror story after another comes out, the obvious question for fans is: Why does anyone agree to work for TNA? This is something I’ve wondered about as well. Wrestlers in TNA are not stupid (well, maybe Chris Parks and his apparent obsession with self-harm); I can think of numerous interviews I’ve read with TNA wrestlers, including Madison Rayne and Elijah Burke, who have noted they have smartly continued with college courses, because they wish to have a back-up plan in case wrestling didn’t work out. More recently, Taylor Wilde announced she was leaving TNA because she couldn’t see any financial security for herself in pro wrestling. So why does any intelligent person agree to such terms? One TNA connected name, who is no longer with the company, contacted me in December to compliment me on something I had written, and made some acute remarks that perhaps sheds light on the matter:
"Your average TNA contract is sickeningly one-sided. It’s $300 a match, you pay all your own road and medical expenses, and they basically own you. I know people like you have said ‘who would sign something like that?’ But when you have a dream, and want to make it, you do whatever you can to make it happen. I sense that TNA have a very corporate attitude about it. You know, ‘we’re the only other place you can go for exposure, so you’ll take what we give you and be grateful.’ It’s not a good situation at all."
Bemoaning the plight of several of his friends in the company on his twitter, Chuck Palumbo criticised the low pay in TNA and also echoed the sentiment that the wrestlers there were being exploited, fuming: "The wrestling companies take advantage of their passion! Any company outside of wrestling would love to have workers with the desire work ethic and passion of a wrestler. The ones that do care about their employees and give them benefits, etc…bonuses, too." Well, that’s difficult to argue with.
Note: alternative titles for this column included:
Note: alternative titles for this column included:Ring of Hell 2: The Dixie Years, TL; DR and How Not To Win TNA's 'Fan Of The Month' Contest.