On Tuesday, WWE wrestler Luke Harper tweeted a statement saying that he has requested his release from his contract. This was just a week after Sasha Banks, fresh off an abrupt end to her and Bayley’s storyline push as Women’s Tag Team Champions, reportedly asked for her own release from the promotion. On Monday Night Raw, announcer Corey Graves gave the promotion’s side of the story when he described Banks as effectively taking her ball and going home; WWE brass has given her the next few weeks off to think about the decision. When similar situations have arisen over the last several years, the process has been a crapshoot. That’s much less the case now, with the Khan family’s All Elite Wrestling weeks away from its first show. Plenty of wrestlers have wanted to leave WWE in the past, although getting out of their contracts has never been easy. With a real competitor on the scene, one of the more complicated and opaque processes in the wrestling business looks likely to get even more so.
George Barrios, WWE CFO and Co-President, told attendees at last year’s Needham Growth Conference that “both parties could terminate [WWE talent contracts] in pretty short order,” adding that “we’re not trying to lock anyone up, it has to work for both parties.” In the last few years, though, it has become increasingly clear that this isn’t actually how it works at all; the promotion’s reported freezing of the contracts of Neville (now PAC in AEW), Daniel Bryan, and Rey Mysterio have made that abundantly clear.
Those wrestlers’ circumstances varied, naturally. Neville just wanted out and instead found himself locked in for a year; Bryan’s deal was frozen indefinitely during the period when he wasn’t cleared to wrestle or performing as a non-wrestler; Mysterio’s deal simply expired, only for Vince McMahon to unilaterally extend it based on Rey’s injury time off. At the time, it was believed that Mysterio was the first wrestler that WWE had ever subjected to a clause in the standard WWE talent contract that allows WWE to fire, suspend, or freeze wrestlers “unable to wrestle for six (6) consecutive weeks during the Term of this Agreement, for any or no reason.”
When reached for comment, WWE declined to provide specific details about talent contracts on the record. The “early termination” section of the most recent publicly available WWE talent contract—Stephanie McMahon’s from 2013—outlines specific ways out of the contract for the promotion, WWE, but not for the wrestler. The closest thing to saying how a wrestler can get out of the deal is the note that the agreement “may be terminated prior to the end of its Term by a written instrument executed by each of the parties expressing their mutual consent.”
The above cases prove that it didn’t take the arrival of AEW for WWE to exert this onerous level of control over wrestlers who wanted out. Flexing its authority over employees is something like a core value at WWE, and has been for many years. But the cases of Neville, Bryan, and Mysterio all also show that, if anything, WWE has largely gotten more restrictive in how it handles wrestlers seeking to leave the promotion. All three of these wrestlers had obvious destinations: Mysterio had a spot waiting for him in Lucha Underground back when they were willing to spend big money, PAC got fed up as WWE was trying to swallow up the British indie scene, and Bryan would have provided a huge boost to New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor.
And now there’s AEW, a big new competitor right in WWE’s backyard. Competitors have come and gone in the past, but there’s an intriguing irony to this one, given that might very well not exist if WWE hadn’t given Cody Rhodes a release three years ago. Cody may have been wallowing in the undercard when he left WWE, but he was still just 30 years old, and had both real name value and an unteachable knack for marketing himself. WWE letting a prospect like that walk again seems unlikely. Of the recent release requests that WWE granted, both wrestlers were pushing 40, with one (Hideo Itami/KENTA) obviously intending to move home to Japan and the other (Tye Dillinger) being a buddy of Cody’s who’s most valuable as a veteran locker room presence at this point. Luke Harper is also pushing 40, as it happens, but while he’s largely been wasted by WWE and still has a ton of upside, he also likely realizes that a public plea might help force WWE’s hand in giving him what he wants. The same tactic worked for Dillinger.
Sasha Banks is a different case. She has said very little publicly outside of a deeply cryptic Twitter statement; the same goes for her husband, the indie wrestler turned WWE costume designer and seamster Sarath “Mikaze” Ton. While Harper’s situation is relatively straightforward—he hasn’t been used in a way that honors his potential, and wants to go someplace that will—what’s up with Banks is more involved. While she was originally the focus of the rebranded/refocused women’s division along with Charlotte Flair, she’s long been out of the title picture. The exception was her January match with Ronda Rousey, for which she was explicitly framed as a hand-picked challenger.
But with WWE’s monthly pay-per-views/live specials now mixing up Raw and SmackDown talent, being on the women’s roster and decidedly not in the title picture significantly limits both exposure and upward mobility. Banks also spent over a year stuck in a drawn-out and completely nonsensical storyline with real life best friend Bayley that had little to no continuity and somehow managed to devalue both women. Parlaying the program into Banks and Bayley becoming the inaugural WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions in January was an attempt to salvage that disaster, but then they lost the belts at WrestleMania before they could establish the title as valuable. If Banks feels like the promotion doesn’t know what to do with her, there’s plenty of evidence to back that up.
Throw in that she’s been labelled as “injury-prone” and that she and Bayley weren’t told of the tag title change until the day of WrestleMania, and it’s pretty easy to see why Banks wants out. If she were to get a release with minimal conditions, Banks—albeit a name that isn’t the WWE-owned one under which she currently wrestles—would be the biggest free agent female wrestler by a wide margin, and a huge get for AEW. The startup is expected to build around a serious women’s division that will be heavy on Japanese imports, but they don’t yet have any female talent with the name value of their top male talent. Banks would fill that role, and would get pushed as a star. She’d also have a deep pool of top talent to work with, and would likely be able to stage some show-stealing matches as a result. It would be a mutually beneficial relationship, but since it would give AEW a bona fide WWE star in an area where they’re lacking established star power, it’s unlikely that WWE will just let it happen.
So yes, WWE is clearly going to do whatever it can to hold on to Sasha Banks. If they try to freeze her out, will she keep quiet like the others did? It would be easier than ever to get media attention for her plight if she wanted to, especially after Last Week Tonight told millions of viewers about WWE’s labor practices a week before WrestleMania. But Banks most likely hasn’t got the kind of money that would make taking WWE to court worth doing. It could very well take months before we know much more about how this is going to resolve. By that point, we’ll also likely know the full scope of the kind of TV contracts that AEW has secured. WWE will be watching that closely, too.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.