I am totally stealing Scott Keith’s old bit there, but it’s thematic. Bear with me.
So Rob Brown sent me this email after reading this statement by Chris Kanyon, professional wrestler (and, having had the opportunity to meet him at a fan weekend once, let me say that like most professional wrestlers, a genuinely nice person) about the death of Chris Benoit and the WWE’s denial of knowledge about his cranial health:
Whenever Benoit would do one of those diving headbutts I always worried that he was gonna blind himself or something. It looks like the reality was far worse than that; I wasn’t aware until I began searching, for instance, that tests revealed “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” If concussions were as frequent for him as Kanyon is saying, something was gonna happen to him sooner or later. Just terrible, horrible luck that it would cause him to lose control or have delusions or whatever it was that made him kill his wife and son. Fuck.
I have zero respect left for Vince McMahon at this point. I’m gonna be fair and not hold things against him that he isn’t responsible for. I acknowledge that it was not McMahon’s idea for Benoit to use that move, and that Benoit had been doing it in pretty much every single one of his matches prior to his employment by WWE. If Benoit came up with the move on his own, then part of the blame lies with him.
But after Benoit signed with WWE, McMahon could have told Benoit to stop doing the headbutt, and it certainly must’ve occurred to McMahon that it might not be particularly good for the guy’s health. If that wasn’t clear to him, it must have become clear if McMahon ever bothered to check on his employee’s health, and when as many of your employees (past and present) end up dying due to health problems before the age of fifty then I would maintain that you have a fucking DUTY to monitor the health of the ones who are still alive, to monitor it very closely. But even if McMahon never suspected that the diving headbutt might cause brain damage, at the very least he could have the decency to acknowledge that yes, maybe the guy did what he did because of multiple concussions sustained in the rings of at least three promotions. He could have the decency to take his fair share of the blame instead of trying to cover his ass and making Benoit’s father out to be hysterical with grief and grasping at straws. That’s what adults do, Vince, they ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY.
I used to think that Vince was just an asshole. But now I don’t think that “evil” is too strong of a word any more. The Montreal Screwjob, the death of Owen Hart, the kind of pro-war rhetoric that’s worthy of a Fox News pundit, the many other deaths…yeah, I’m thinking “evil” now.
Here’s the thing about wrestling deaths. Tragic, yes, every one. But, until very recently, wrestling deaths fell into two major categories: retired or semi-retired stars past their prime dying of causes possibly related to steroid use, and younger wrestlers suffering deaths-by-misadventure (drug overdoses and the like).
Legally speaking, it’s incredibly hard to pin blame on Vinny Mac or any other wrestling promoter for either of these: for the younger stars, he certainly didn’t encourage them to go out and party recklessly (and by all accounts often provided incentive for wrestlers to live on the straight and narrow path, often by providing those who did with jobs as trainers or road agents or scouts or similar once their ring days were over – I’m also thinking of that incident where he suspended Hardcore Holly and fired a Diva because they were having an illicit affair), and for the older stars? You simply can’t prove causation of death based on steroid use and ring injuries – never mind that most of these later-life deaths were of stars who indulged heavily in serious drug use during their prime (and coke can seriously fuck up your health), all the WWE has to do is trot out Hulk Hogan and say “look, he’s fine and he juiced like nobody’s business, it’s not our fault.” And that would probably be the end of any legal culpability.
(Owen Hart stands out like a sore thumb, of course, but Owen was an exceptional case, and it is not for nothing that the WWE settled out of court for a lot of money and immediately stopped doing any such similar stunt. Freak accidents happen.)
However. Benoit – and Eddie Guerrero before him – are the start of something new: deaths of wrestlers still in the prime of their careers, actively doing the job. This is brand new territory here for wrestling, and all those new anti-steroid initiatives that showed up after Eddie’s death and really started to get seriously enforced after the Benoit debacle are, plainly and simply, Vince McMahon and company freaking the fuck out, because they desperately, desperately want to avoid a messy public lawsuit.
Not because a messy public lawsuit would air all the McMahon dirty laundry. That would suck, but most of the public would forget within six months and most wrestling fans would either ignore it or just take the WWE’s side of things.
No, I’d guess they desperately want to avoid a messy public lawsuit because at this point, they believe a negligence suit launched by the Guerrero family or the Benoit family would stand good odds of winning. Employers do owe a duty of care to their employees – its one of the basic established duty-of-care relationships – and the WWE’s “nope, we didn’t know about no concussions, nope nope nope” statement just doesn’t hold water, especially when they knew the dangers of keeping Kurt Angle employed well enough to fire him when he wouldn’t take care of himself, and that was before Benoit’s death.
(Worse yet is the possibility of prosecution of criminal negligence. I can’t say with authority how crim neg works in the States – nor specifically how it would work in Georgia and Connecticut, the two states most likely where such a suit could be tried. But under Canadian law, I’d argue that there’s a very possible criminal negligence leading to death prosecution to be had in such an instance. There’s another word for “criminal negligence leading to death” – manslaughter.)
But even the loss of a negligence lawsuit isn’t the worry. Yes, they’d probably be out a lot of money losing such a suit, and that would suck. But once you’ve established in court that the WWE owed a duty of care to Benoit or Guerrero or the next star wrestler who dies while under contract (and although Eddie and Chris’s deaths managed to almost totally get swept under the rug as regards the WWE’s responsibility thereof, it’s only going to take one more major loss for a serious legal backlash, I think) and that they neglected that duty?
Then the floodgates open. Because suddenly, all the families of those semi-retired wrestlers who died younger than they should – they now have a legal finding, and now all of a sudden factual causation of negligence just got a lot stronger for their argument, and trotting out Hulk Hogan isn’t going to be nearly as compelling. And the money they could win – that kills the WWE, dead, and with the WWE’s death that’s probably it for pro wrestling in North America for at least a decade.
That is the nightmare scenario, and, regardless of whether you think Vince McMahon is a devil or a saint (and I personally do not have a strong belief in the virtues of Vince, believe me), that’s why he’s playing the denial game. Any admittance of fault is simply very, very dangerous, and moral concerns about “the right thing” likely pale in comparison to the potential death of his company, which employs many, many people, remember…