Photo: WWE

Let’s leave aside the draconian contract clauses, and also the sadness of WWE losing one of its best talents and potentially alienating another. The specific failures to get the most out of Luke Harper and Sasha Banks, respectively, are various and complicated, but fundamentally simple at bottom. They’re an indictment of the broader failures of a company that feels very little heat from competitors and often seems to act according to the whims of its 73-year-old dictator. The intertwined stories of Harper’s requested release and Banks’ potential departure reflect how WWE’s monopoly position has sapped its ability to do what a wrestling promotion is supposed to do, and are a worrying sign that, even as a real competitor appears to be heaving itself from the primordial sludge, WWE is not going to change.

Harper’s story is both more common and more demoralizing. The 39-year-old heavy has been in WWE since 2012, as the most menacing muscle of Bray Wyatt’s Wyatt Family stable, which evolved from a swamp cult to a supernatural collection of weirdos with under-defined powers and underwhelming successes. As part of the Wyatt Family, Harper was fast and vicious, especially when compared to his fellow strongman Erick Rowan. He didn’t have Wyatt’s charisma or the support of WWE’s decision makers, but managed to establish a character out of little more than a stained tank top, blue jeans, and his own talent.

His in-ring talent was never an issue, as Harper arrived from the indies—he was Brodie Lee, there—as a finished product: a power wrestler who moved around the ring like a cruiserweight, throwing his body around and clobbering more highly regarded antagonists. His peak performance of this era came at one of the worst pay-per-views in WWE history: BattleGround 2014. The Wyatt Family (Harper and Rowan) took on the pre-urbanized Usos in a two-out-of-three falls tag team match. The lasting takeaway from the bout was that Harper was unmistakably a star.

And yet that stardom never quite came to pass. Harper split from the Wyatt Family, won the Intercontinental title—his reign lasted only 27 days, but which featured a memorably violent ladder match against Dolph Ziggler in December of 2014—and then returned to Bray’s embrace. This is where WWE dropped the ball.

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No one will ever say that Bray Wyatt’s tussle with Randy Orton at WrestleMania 33 was anything but a dud. What could have been a good wrestling match between two capable opponents instead leaned hard into misguided supernatural elements, most infamously Wyatt turning the ring into an audio-visual scare featuring a bunch of bugs for some reason.

Harper absolutely should have been in that match. The story in the months leading to the biggest show of the year had been that Bray believed he had converted Orton into one of his minions. Harper, who had been with the Family mostly since its start, was not convinced of Orton’s sincerity, and his suspicions turned out to be right. The crowd was behind Harper, and it would have made sense to place him in the match as a force for good. He also would have provided the in-ring work rate that might have at least elevated the match from whatever it was into a wrestling showcase.

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Instead, he was unceremoniously dropped from the storyline, then repackaged with Rowan as the Bludgeon Brothers, a nothing tag team that had no story beyond carrying around goofy Super Mario hammers. They won the tag titles, but never paid off on Harper’s potential. Injuries and creative indifference have led to Harper being shelved in the years since, which in turn led to him requesting his release.

WWE blew it with Harper, a series of impacted mistakes that looks likely to cost the promotion a solid mid-card talent with main event wrestling skills. That is nigh unforgivable, but in its mishandling of Sasha Banks the promotion appears to be fumbling away an actual star. Given her charisma and talent and in-ring work, Banks should be one of the most famous people in wrestling. Instead, she’s currently on hiatus, after threatening to quit WWE following a botched WrestleMania creative decision.

The former women’s champion walked into New Jersey two weeks ago as half of the first-ever WWE Women’s Tag Team champions, alongside long-time frenemy Bayley. By all accounts, the pair had lobbied hard behind the scenes for the introduction of the tag titles as a response to a women’s roster bursting with talent but with only two main titles to seek; those titles would get somewhat unified later in the night, as Becky Lynch won both the Raw and SmackDown Live women’s titles in the first-ever women’s main event at WrestleMania.

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The idea was that, by putting the tag belts on the most famous and beloved pairing outside the main event, WWE could really make them mean something. Instead, the company took the belts and gave them to the IIconics, a delightful Australian duo that’s nowhere near Banks or Bayley in terms of wrestling ability. This wasn’t a bad choice in itself, as the IIconics are hilarious and having them show up on every brand is a plus. But it highlighted how thoughtless the promotion is when it comes to Banks.

According to Dave Meltzer, Banks and Bayley were not told that they were losing their belts until the day of the show, despite the fact that plenty of others knew backstage for some time. It’s a common courtesy for promotions to let wrestlers know what’s in the works for their careers, and it was not one WWE extended to Banks or Bayley. That disrespect seemingly pushed Banks, a life-long wrestling fan, over the edge. She tried to quit the company and has not been seen since the big show.

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David Bixenspan ably covered why both Harper and especially Banks will have a hard time actually leaving the company on their own terms, but their push to do so should scare the hell out of WWE. While Harper would likely make a nice living in the indies and/or in Japan, Banks would be an obvious target for All Elite Wrestling, the new Cody Rhodes/Young Bucks-led promotion debuting in May.

Backing from the Khan family, of Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC fame, has ensured that AEW has the money to compete with WWE. They’ve spent smartly thus far, scooping up brand-name indie wrestlers like Kenny Omega, Penta El Zero M, and Rey Fenix among its first big batch of signings. Adding Banks to a women’s division that’s filled with talent—most of it, at this point, imported from Japan—but short on name recognition would be a huge boon for the promotion. AEW would doubtless shoot her to the top of the promotion from the start.

AEW’s mere existence should terrify WWE. This is not because it will suddenly lose ratings to its upstart counterpart, which it likely won’t. It’s because the new promotion is providing wrestlers with an alternative to taking whatever WWE deigns to give. The ability to carve out a high-profile living in a single promotion outside of WWE’s sphere hasn’t existed for many years, and for someone like Banks, who had a short indie career before spending the last decade in the WWE system, the prospect of touring the country for indie-sized crowds might not be very appealing. But if she can make good money at the head of AEW, suddenly leaving the industry leader makes more sense.

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And while it may be difficult to actually get out of her contract with WWE, as Bixenspan outlined, she could also just sit out the remainder of that deal, as Neville did before going back to the indies. WWE certainly has the upper hand in both Banks’s and Harper’s situations, but binding unhappy talent to the promotion by legal mandate is not the way to build a healthy or successful business. If there’s a competitor that can replicate many of the things WWE offers, but with a more wrestler-friendly disposition, that old hardball likely won’t work as well as it used to. Being such a promotion is clearly one of AEW’s major selling points; Rhodes himself left WWE because of creative mismanagement, and hate him or love him, there’s a sweet irony in him spearheading the most well-positioned competitor to WWE in decades.

The existential threat that AEW represents to WWE’s effective monopoly on American pro wrestling has become harder to miss in recent months, with both the Revival and the Usos recently rumored to be dipping for potentially greener pastures. In those cases, WWE responded accordingly, giving the Revival, which is one of the best tag teams in the world and a big reason for the current tag team renaissance in NXT, a title run and locking in the Usos to a lucrative multi-year deal. Of course, the Revival immediately went back to being punks, losing all sorts of non-title matches before dropping the belts on the WrestleMania pre-show. The Usos also dropped their own tag titles the week after WrestleMania, although that decision at least served a purpose: to get the twins to Raw, where their tag team expertise is deeply needed.

Will WWE do the same for Banks, once she returns from her time off? A Sasha Banks-Becky Lynch feud is likely the best thing WWE can run that it hasn’t already tried on the main roster; the pair had a show-stealing match back in 2015 at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable, and their characters are enough at odds that they would build to an easy and memorable feud if given the chance.

Or WWE could give Banks a new partner, given that Bayley is now on SmackDown Live, and set her on a quest to retrieve her tag title belts from the IIconics, or whoever holds them when she returns. Turning Banks heel would allow her to recover some of the Boss character that she was in NXT, when she would relentlessly irritate every other woman on the roster. The options are there if WWE wants them.

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It would be nice if the prospect of losing one of its biggest homegrown stars jolted WWE into changing its ways going forward. Knowing the promotion, though, it’s hard to have much faith. While its roster is obscenely overpopulated at the moment, both Harper and Banks always stood out to everyone but the brass; their current predicaments are proof of how unreliable WWE is with the talent it controls. With other options now emerging as viable destinations, WWE would be wise to start treating its talent as the promotion’s most valuable resource, before it’s too late.