July 2, 2007
Will Chris Benoit’s
Death Lead to Wrestling Changes? Don’t Bet On It
The year's most shocking sports story is about something that
isn't actually a sport. That's the most natural reaction to the events
surrounding the death of Chris Benoit on Monday.
The "Canadian Crippler," one of the biggest stars in the
bizarre circus that is professional wrestling, was reported dead on
Monday afternoon, along with his wife and seven-year-old son, and in the
ensuing days, the unspeakable truth emerged that Benoit had actually
murdered his own wife and son before taking his own life.
In World Wrestling Entertainment and in several other
organizations previously, Benoit was a majestic performer in the ring,
one loved by wrestling fans the world over for his skill at "scientific
wrestling," the sort of technical-based style that came into favor with
the advent of Internet wrestling fandom in the 1990s. And even more
strangely, he had a reputation as a class act, respected and looked up
to by his peers.
What made Benoit snap? We don't know, and we may never know.
The news media seemed to come to the conclusion that it was "roid rage"
that did it, but that diagnosis is both simplistic and likely wrong.
Yes, Benoit, like most pro wrestlers, used steroids, and yes, the drugs
were found in his home. But just about everything about the crime made
it appear premeditated, which made it quite unlikely that a singular
drug spell caused him to kill two people over two days.
WWE head Vince McMahon was eager to distance his organization
from Benoit himself. WWE had broadcast a three-hour tribute to Benoit on
Monday night, but once it became clear he was a murderer the special was
pulled from re-runs, and is virtually certain to never see the light of
day ever again. The WWE also poo-pooed the steroids angle from the
start. McMahon was indicted (and acquitted) in 1993 on federal steroid
distribution charges, and with the noose tightening around every sports
league, such government scrutiny is likely to someday ensnare the WWE
Is the WWE, or wrestling itself, to blame for what happened
in that Georgia house? Not directly, no. But at the same time, it has
been pretty clearly established by now that participation in the
professional wrestling profession is not conducive to one's continued
health, or even their continued life.
News about retired football players suffering concussions,
brain damage and early death has begun to make the news often in recent
months. It's been going on in wrestling for years, and one of the
researchers, Chris Nowinski, is himself a onetime WWE competitor.
Wrestlers are on the road more than 200 days a year,
sometimes fighting in the ring as many as five days a week, compared to
once a week for football players and two or three times yearly for
boxers (yes, wrestling is "fake," but the performers do get hurt and do
suffer frequent injuries.) Steroid use is common, while painkiller abuse
is likely just as necessary. And on top of that, wrestlers on the road
live much like rock stars, with alcoholism and recreational drug abuse
going on all over the place.
As a result of all this, on top of other factors (lack of
decent health insurance, etc.), news of the deaths of pro wrestling
stars of the '80s and '90s is practically a weekly event. This made the
recent hoax reports of the "death" of Vince McMahon, abandoned after
Benoit's death, especially ill-considered. Did they not consider that
maybe someone would die in real life within a week or two?
Is Vince McMahon to blame for all of this? Again, not
directly. But it's clear that a pattern is emerging, of people in that
particular profession dying in their 30s and 40s of the same handful of
things (heart attack, drug overdose, suicide.)
When asked about this, McMahon has usually answered that the
majority of deaths have been people no longer employed by WWE. But
that's beside the point. As the "czar" of professional wrestling,
McMahon may not be able to save everyone's life, but he should be
pursuing more measures, and expressing a whole lot more concern, than he
has. The WWE's "wellness" program, which makes baseball's famously loose
drug testing program look draconian by comparison, is hardly an
effective first step.
I have been a fan of pro wrestling since I was about eight
years old, and while I don't watch as much as I used to, I continue to
follow the "sport" with great interest. When pro wrestling makes the
news most often for the news of deaths that seem to come every other
week, someone associated with the business needs to stand up and say
"enough is enough," and apply pressure to change the way wrestling does
business. Will Chris Benoit's death do that? If history is any guide,
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