The "screwjob" is generally believed to be an off-screen betrayal of Hart, who was one of the WWF's longest-tenured and most popular performers at the time.
Hart won the WWF Championship at SummerSlam in August 1997. A week prior to Survivor Series, Hart, who had performed for the WWF since 1984, gave notice that he was leaving soon in December.
McMahon sought to prevent Hart from leaving the company as the champion, but Hart was unwilling to lose the title to Michaels – with whom he had a long feud both on-screen and off – at Survivor Series in his home country. Hart, Michaels, and McMahon came to an agreement where the Survivor Series match would end with a disqualification, which under normal rules would result in Hart retaining the title. Hart would then lose or forfeit the title at a later date. However, McMahon decided without Hart's knowledge that Michaels would win the title at Survivor Series. Accounts differ as to who exactly was involved in the plan and the extent of their involvement. The plan was executed when match referee Earl Hebner, on direct order from McMahon, ended the match as Michaels held Hart in the Sharpshooter submission hold, Hart's signature finishing move, even though Hart had not submitted. Michaels was declared the victor by submission and crowned as the new WWF Champion. Michaels' theme music then began playing and the ring announcer declared him the winner and the new WWF Champion. Hebner had already exited the ring and the arena for the hotel. After an initial moment of shock, Hart got to his feet, approached the apron where McMahon was standing and spat directly in his face, while Michaels feigned confusion. Michaels was ordered by McMahon to grab the belt and leave the arena with Gerry Brisco and Triple H. McMahon and most other WWF officials also quickly made their way backstage as an angry Hart smashed cameras, monitors, and ringside equipment. Fans in attendance also began to vent their fury on McMahon and WWF officials; a few even heaped garbage on them and some who were close enough pushed Michaels as he hurried backstage. Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith came out to the ring and had a conversation with Hart after calming him down.
Following the incident, Hart, along with his brothers-in-law Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith, left the company. Owen Hart, however, stayed, fearing he would be a victim of breach of contract.