My friend Jonathan Balofsky wanted to comment on something re: the internet and WWE, and it ties into a longer post I’ve been wanting to write, so take it away, Jon:
Recently, New York Post sportswriter Phil Mushnick once again took aim at the WWE and Vince McMahon over the large number of wrestlers to have died before the age of 45, in an attack on the organization on the eve of RAW 1000. Mushnick has argued in various articles that even though some performers died after leaving WWE, WWE was a large contributor to their deaths (calling the company a death mill), citing among others, Brian Pillman.
Certainly some of the names on the list are valid criticisms. Test and Lance Cade both died directly as a result of drug use that began and was probably unofficially condoned by the WWE. Owen Hart’s death is obviously their fault. Chris Benoit’s concussions are now widely considered to have contributed to the potential dementia which may have contributed to his murder/suicide and the work environment probably didn’t help his depression, but the WWE has taken steps to try and help its performers avoid getting concussions and to make sure they get the emotional help they need. Eddie Guerrerro’s death similarly led the WWE to take steps to make sure its workers stay clean and don’t abuse steroids, supplements and painkillers.
But the WWE can’t be given full or even partial blame for most of the names on the list. Bam Bam Bigelow hadn’t wrestled in the WWF for twelve years when he died and most of his legendary (and injury-causing) hardcore matches weren’t fought there.Johnny Grunge worked all of two months for the WWE; Bertha Faye/Rhonda Sing was there for only one year, Terry Gordy for only a few months, Rad Radford/Louis Spicolli six months, Mike Awesome one year. Giant Gonzales died 17 years after working for the company – of complications from his diabetes. John Tenta died of bladder cancer, which similarly is hardly the WWE’s fault. Crash Holly committed suicide. Chris Candido died from a blood clot due to complications from surgery. The WWE tried to get both Yokozuna and Umaga to go to rehab for their illnesses/addictions and only released them after those men refused, and subsequently they died of them.
Mr. Perfect, Rick Rude, the British Bulldog, Brian Pillman and Crush all did steroids (and painkillers and other drugs) while in the WWE and certainly an argument can be made that the WWE is partially responsible for all of their deaths, but all wrestled extensively elsewhere (and Pillman was an undersized football player with a heart condition to boot); all used drugs elsewhere as well, and in each case they began using drugs before the WWE hired them. (Bulldog in particular got addicted to painkillers after a stupid accident in WCW towards the end of his career.)
This took me ten minutes on Google to research with some assistance from the commenters at wrestlinginc. Maybe it’s time for journalists to do more serious research before they make disrespectful accusations.
Saying that a sportswriter is a hack is kind of a truism: most sportswriters are hacks, after all, and the list1 is in many ways stupid and frivolous, as demonstrated above. However, the list is a bit self-serving.
I don’t buy the “partially responsible” argument with respect to steroid deaths like Curt Hennig or Davey Boy Smith, though, by saying “well, they wrestled other places too!”2. Here is the simple truth: Vince McMahon is a bodybuilder. He always has been, and he wants his wrestlers to be muscular guys, which is why for decades he turned a blind eye to drug use by practically everybody’s admission (and, depending on who you believe, did far more than turn a blind eye). Before the WWF’s rise to prominence, professional wrestlers were not nearly so muscular, ripped and toned – and then they were everywhere because Vince set the national standard and the matching set of expectations as to what wrestlers were supposed to look like. (Eddie Guerrero went from being a slim, muscular man in WCW to a ripped, much bigger man in the WWF.) There is just no way that Vince (and by extension the WWE) does not bear some ethical and moral responsibility for that. Even if they have gone a long way to try and make amends for it by putting together a more coherent testing regime – well, there’s a reason you make amends in the first place.
But the real reason Vince bears responsibility for all those deaths is simple: Vince McMahon has always, always been controlling of the wrestlers he employs, and never missed a chance to exploit them. This recent interview says it more simply than I ever could:
MCMAHON: Our talent is taught not to be prima donnas, to be on time and know their lines. And quite frankly, people in Hollywood, once they see what we do, they are amazed. Our talent doesn’t demand the biggest trailer or a certain amount of grape juice or whatever the hell it is. Our talent is extremely flexible and knows how to act, so it’s a logical extension for them.
Vince McMahon: always willing to explain why it’s a good thing when your employees – whose effort and, yes, pain you have spent a lifetime profiting from – know not to get uppity.
But seriously, the WWE’s attitude towards its employees has gotten better only insofar as Vince is willing to avoid having them die young. Which is not to say he is an inhuman monster who revels in his wrestlers’ suffering, because that would be stupid; I am quite sure that Vince genuinely wishes his employees to be as happy and healthy as possible. But the key word here is “possible,” and the WWE’s well-wishing doesn’t extend to actually employing the wrestlers directly (since that would increase the company’s liability) or directly providing them with health insurance (too expensive). It’s quite true that most wrestlers will say quite willingly that Vince always treated them well and the WWE was a great place to work, and I would imagine most of them are being honest about that – but then again, how would we know? Because every wrestler who doesn’t want to burn bridges with the largest employer in wrestling isn’t going to trash-talk them.3 The WWE hires wrestlers long-term, gives older and semi-retired wrestlers jobs as trainers, road agents, producers – and there are of course the “legends contracts” where retired wrestlers are effectively paid to be retired wrestlers. They all know what happened to the wrestlers who did burn bridges; every few years there’s another cautionary tale, and most of them don’t end up on their feet like Jesse Ventura did.
People who know me know that I generally tend to side with labour when it comes to labour/management disputes, and nowhere else is this more the case than in pro sports, where the labour is the entire reason the product exists even moreso than anywhere else. Pro wrestling isn’t quite as pure in this regard because of its scripted nature, but even so: it is quite obviously the case that the wrestlers drive the product. Regardless of how much credit you want to give Vince for the success of the WWE4 the fact remains that nobody is gonna pay money just to watch the McMahon family soap opera without there being wrestling to drive the product.
Vince’s attitude, though, isn’t unique to him (unfortunately). It’s another example of what Dave Lartigue recently discussed in his excellent post yesterday: management wins when the argument that labour has no inherent worth is conceded. Of course Vince is going to celebrate that his talent isn’t “prima donnas” who don’t want to be treated specially like other actors: anything that diminishes the value of labour and accepts, as a given, that workers aren’t going to assert their equality of value to management is going to be celebrated in management culture. And that’s a problem, because the Vince-as-god belief system has become inherent to wrestling (with people mostly forgetting the 1993-1995 period when the company was at least within the danger zone of going under), and so long as the management/labour relationship is that unbalanced, there’s always going to be problems no matter how beneficient a dictator the manager may be.
At least nowadays the problems mostly aren’t people dying, and that’s certainly a good thing. But it’s setting an awfully low bar to pass, isn’t it?
- Which appears to be a compilation of wrestler deaths that Mushnick has complained about over the years, and which I won’t bother reproducing or linking – go find a dirtsheet site if you like. [↩]
- Which is one Vince McMahon has made a few times in an attempt to mitigate PR damage. [↩]
- At least, not anywhere it will get reported back. [↩]
- And he deserves credit – despite the failure of the World Bodybuilding Federation. And ICOPRO. And the XFL. And his various attempts to build separate wrestling brands. I suspect we’ll add Tout to this list in a few years. [↩]