Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Linda McMahon, wrestlers deaths and head injuries - National Business of Sports |

Linda McMahon, Wrestlers Deaths and Head Injuries

By Evan Weiner

September 28, 2010

(New York, N. Y.) -- The wife of World Wrestling Entertainment Czar Vince McMahon and former WWE Chief Executive Officer Linda McMahon is running for the United States Senate for the State of Connecticut. McMahon is apparently running as an outsider who can help create jobs in her state and elsewhere because she ran a successful business. McMahon is no outsider to politics. The World Wrestling Federation lobbied various states to decouple the "sport" from state athletic regulations. The McMahons argued that wrestling was a scripted entertainment and convinced lawmakers that it was really not much different from entertainment shows.

There was a reason that the McMahons wanted to get away from state athletic regulators. Wrestling resides in a murky area in sports and entertainment. The genre has some athleticism but in 1989 Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey State Senate that his product was not a bona fide competition and that wrestling matches were staged events. McMahon was trying to catch some tax breaks from the state of New Jersey for his live shows and his pay-per-view TV offerings by claiming his genre was not a sport.

The McMahon's successful business was built on a house of cards in 1984 after Vince McMahon decided to "rewrite" the rules of professional wrestling and invade other promoters’ territories. McMahon's World Wrestling Federation had the big east coast markets, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and other cities and the other big wrestling promoters, the NWA's Crockett family and the AWA's Vern Gagne totally misread the landscape thinking McMahon had the money to pull off the national expansion. According to one insider, McMahon did everything he could to find money and rolled the dice on Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1985.

The McMahons won.

Madison Square Garden was packed, the money flowed in and the WWF had a solid financial footing.

McMahon's wrestlers looked like super heroes out of comic books with enormously sculptured bodies. There were also some "steroid-rage" incidents involving some wrestlers outside the ring but steroids were not deemed illegal until President George Bush signed legislation in 1990 banning the substance. Vince McMahon was indicted in November of 1993 on charges of possession of steroids and conspiracy to distribute steroids. McMahon beat the rap after a jury came back with a not guilty verdict on July 22, 1994. In 2005, McMahon’s wrestling circuit was still wrestling with drug issues and following the death of Eddie Guerrero, the McMahons imposed new drug testing policies.

The McMahons knew they had a problem on their hands and according to the WWE website, "(the) WWE implemented a WWE Talent Wellness Program on February 27, 2006. The WWE Talent Wellness Program is administered independent of WWE by (a) team of physicians." The statement goes onto say that "the Substance Abuse and Drug Testing Policy prohibits the use of drugs by WWE talent for other than a legitimate medical purpose pursuant to a valid prescription from a licensed and treating physician. The use of masking agents and/or diuretics to conceal or obscure the use of prohibited drugs is also forbidden."

Despite the policy, wrestlers are still dying in alarming numbers.

The WWF, now WWE, has not faced the same sort of scrutiny that professional sportswriters and other gadflies heaped upon Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and former Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr. Not many professional sportswriters aside from Frank Deford, Phil Mushnick and some wrestling reporters nor the gadflies around wrestling have bothered to take a closer look at the mortality rate of wrestlers who may have been using banned performance enhancing drugs. The percentage of professional wrestlers who died under the age of 50 in the past decade from a drug overdose or of heart attack, liver or kidney failure brought on by drug abuse is high far than the mortality rate in the general population.

The carnage has been documented and the toll is large especially compared with the number of deaths attributed to steroid drug damage in Major League Baseball. The answer in baseball appears to be zero, although Ken Caminiti died of a drug overdose in 2004 at the age of 41. Caminiti was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1995 and discussed his steroids usage with a reporter from the America magazine Sports Illustrated in 2002. Caminiti did not have steroids in his system at the time of his death.

On Monday, Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for United States Senator will face off against Connecticut Attorney General and the Democrat's candidate Richard Blumenthal in a debate that is being sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's FOX Connecticut and the Sam Zell Tribune Company's Hartford Courant. The debate will be hosted by FOX correspondent Bret Baier. Apparently Zell has cut the staff at the Courant so thin that there is no one from the newspaper who is capable of performing the job as moderator. Baier does work for a news organization that leans right and specializes in going after an old audience who loves the presentation.

Television news reporters are now being regularly tapped as debate moderators despite some rather dismal performances over the years by PBS' Jim Lehrer, WCBS-TV Channel 2 (New York) reporter Marcia Kramer who was woefully unprepared in a 2000 debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio in the New York Senate campaign and Gwen Ifell, who let Sarah Palin walk all over her in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate. There was an unremarkable performance by ABC's Charles Gibson in a 2008 debate.

It will be rather interesting to see whether a "TV news talent" like Baier will ask McMahon any of these troubling questions about drug usage in McMahon's WWE or the death of wrestlers. To be fair, Baier also must Blumenthal about his remarks about serving in Vietnam even though Blumenthal did not.

Baier also should ask McMahon about former WWF wrestler and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura interview in 2008 on the Howard Stern radio show that he was fired by the company after Hulk Hogan told Vince McMahon that Ventura was trying to unionize wrestlers.

WWE performers are independent contractors which means that the McMahons do not pay social security benefits, Medicare contributions and unemployment insurance. The McMahons have contended they pay wrestlers extremely well and that makes up for the lack of benefits. It is unknown how many former wrestlers who suffered disabling injuries are now on the government dole getting social security insurance or Medicare to pay medical bills.

If Baier had any backbone, he would ask McMahon what she thinks of social security and health care and how many wrestlers now in their 40s and 50s that performed for her that are getting government support. And to get to a deeper point, FOX's conservative audience that likes morality, Baier's questioning should also include queries about storylines that included something that called the "Mr. McMahon Kiss My Ass Club" where wrestlers performed the act. There should also be a question or two about the debasing of women as part of the on-going “soap opera”.

Linda McMahon has claimed though she was not on the creative side of the business.

But given that Baier is a TV talking head and people look for sizzle not substance in a debate these days, it is unlikely that either McMahon or Blumenthal will getting too many high and hard pitches under the chin.

Congress is beginning to put the spotlight on the devastating injuries that have occurred in the National Football League and how both the league and the National Football League Players Association have failed a good many players whose injuries have permanently disabled them. Former McMahon employees have criticized the company because of there is no union and one father of a deceased wrestler may have touched a nerve that brain damaged football players are beginning to talk about.

Michael Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit -- the wrestler who on June 24, 2007 killed his son and wife then hanged himself -- claimed in a Hartford Courant interview in May that the McMahons didn't take proper care of their employees and just used the wrestlers to line their pockets.

"My son, Chris Benoit, 40, was one of WWE's top superstars. In June 2007, our lives changed dramatically, when he tragically killed his wife, son and himself. The press jumped on steroids as the cause of his actions. But tests showed that brain damage in the form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, not steroids, was responsible for our loss. CTE, caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, can bring on serious disorders such as a loss of emotional control, addictions to drugs and alcohol, depression, aggressive and violent behavior."

Congress is addressing head injuries in pro football. The very type of head injury that Michael Benoit said his son had from his days as a wrestler. Talk to former football players with brain injuries and they immediately recognize the symptoms.

Baier should ask bring up the whole head injury issue because if McMahon is elected to the Senate and there are additional hearings on football injuries, McMahon just might be appointed to the committee holding hearings. What kind of questions would Senator Linda McMahon ask at a hearing about sports concussions?

Why isn't there a bigger spotlight on professional wrestling's mortality rate? Baier owes it to the non-FOX audience and to the former wrestlers who looked to the government for assistance to really be a moderator and not another FOX pundit. Linda McMahon needs to answer questions about the deaths of the performers in her business.

All of those deaths that should have rattled and ravaged her business, the wrestling industry. Fortunately for Linda McMahon, her husband Vince and daughter Stephanie and her husband Paul Michael Levesque a.k.a. Triple H, there is very little scrutiny of the industry.

Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." He can be reached at evanjweiner

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