Sami Zayn was stripped of his WWE Intercontinental Championship this week for deciding not to wrestle during the coronavirus pandemic, and it's not a good thing for WWE backstage morale. Zayn was stripped of the title and a tournament announced to crown a new champion Wednesday, as he could not defend the title due to choosing to self-quarantine. Zayn's treatment illustrates the reason why wrestlers have not taken WWE up on its offer to stay home during the pandemic.
According to Dave Meltzer in the latest edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the decision to strip Zayn of the title is due to unhappiness in the office over Zayn actually taking WWE up on the offer to stay home from work. Meltzer finds the justification for the decision questionable for the same reasons we pointed out on Wednesday: that the title has been so degraded over the last few decades that it doesn't matter if it's on the show and that there are other ways to deal with Zayn's absence, as we've seen with multiple champions in WWE, AEW, and Impact. Meltzer writes:
They officially announced as IC title tournament on Smackdown. Even though nobody can say it publicly for obvious reasons, there is a lot of unhappiness that Zayn exercised the option that they gave everyone regarding not wrestling if you don't want to right now. I mean, the IC title doesn't mean much and we're long past the period of taking titles too seriously and they can do whatever they want. The tournament will start on the 5/15 Smackdown show.
When it comes to Sami Zayn's treatment, Meltzer goes on to talk about a culture of fear when it comes to wrestlers choosing to self-quarantine. Back in April, a person claiming to be a WWE employee claimed that the company was forcing people to work during the pandemic and that social distancing was impossible at the shows, though WWE denied the claims. However, the company also laid off or furloughed dozens of workers in April, and pretty much every wrestler who has criticized WWE in the past were amongst the layoffs. The company claimed the layoffs were cost-cutting measures, but a financial report released soon after revealed WWE is on track for record profits. Meltzer continues:
"It should be noted that I know of several people in the company who are not comfortable at all about working right now but were not about to take WWE up on the offer for job security reasons, and this was before all the firings. There are still people not working who live in the U.S. but they are very few. It's also notable with AEW that Tony Khan said roughly the same thing, and evidently his employees believed him at the time. The promise that you can take the time off and it won't hurt you or your position is hard to take seriously. The only person who publicly said he wouldn't wrestle in a pandemic was Lio Rush as he was then fired. Now, granted, my belief is he was fired because he complained about pay and went into a depression about money and how he was being used months earlier. And those guys were the first guys let go."
In addition, Roman Reigns, another WWE wrestler who has chosen not to work during the pandemic, has seen WWE ban the use of his name on television. Though Reigns will surely be welcomed back when he is ready to return, will he still have the same position as face of the company? Sami Zayn, for his part, doesn't have the pull that Reigns does. It's hard to deny that WWE hasn't handled the coronavirus pandemic as well as it could have, focused more on its own profits than the well-being of its workers.