1. DOZENS OF WRESTLERS HAVE SUED THE WWE OVER CONCUSSIONS AND UNFAIR CONTRACTS.
In July 2016, more than 50 wrestlers filed a lawsuit against World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE) alleging that the company had recklessly endangered its performers, concealed the dangers of head injuries, misclassified wrestlers as “independent contractors,” and neglected its own Talent Wellness Program (including neurological testing/the concussion protocol).
The plaintiffs included Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Road Warrior Animal, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, Chavo Guerrero Sr., Chavo Guerrero Jr., King Kong Bundy, Marty Jannetty, Sabu, Mark Jindrak, and referees Dave and Earl Hebner.
This isn’t the first time wrestlers have sought redress from the WWE, of course. In 2008, a trio of former wrestlers—Scott Levy (aka Raven), Chris Klucsarits (aka Kanyon), and Mike Sanders—filed a lawsuit against the WWE over their independent contractor statuses. (You can read the full complaint here.) Given their fulltime (and then some) hours and the exclusivity of their WWE contracts, they felt—justifiably—that they were owed basic insurance and retirement benefits.
But the following year, the judge threw the case out due to the statute of limitations. The WWE has proved somewhat Teflon in court, save Jesse Ventura winning $800,000 in 1991 for owed royalties (more on him later).
In April 2016, the NFL settled a $1 billion lawsuit with 20,000 retired football players who—like the 50 wrestlers who sued the WWE over concussions—felt their employer had misled them about the risks of repeated head trauma. The key difference is that those players were fulltime employees of the NFL, not independent contractors, and they had proof that the NFL had masked and downplayed the risks.
Still, the 2016 WWE suit was modeled after the NFL one (as was the NHL concussion lawsuit), and if the judge determines that the statute of limitations does not apply, as the plaintiffs argue, it could net the wrestlers some small measure of justice for their myriad health issues and titanic medical bills.
Regardless of how this case and others play out, the way the WWE treats its performers has to change. Their lives depend on it.
2. CHRIS BENOIT AND ANDREW “TEST” MARTIN HAD CTE.
Many chalked up WWE star Chris Benoit’s horrific double-murder/suicide to “roid rage”—a steroid-induced belligerence that is most likely a myth, as suggested by a 2014 study in the medical journal Addiction and the acclaimed 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.
Dr. Julian Bailes—co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute—told ABC News, “There’s no consensus in the medical community that this issue of ‘roid rage… even exists.”
Dr. Bennet Omalu is the world’s foremost expert on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and co-director of the BIRI with Dr. Bailes. (He was the subject of the 2015 Will Smith film Concussion, in which Dr. Bailes was played by Alec Baldwin.) Dr. Omalu says that Chris Benoit’s unspeakable actions were driven not by steroids but by the untold blows to the head he received over his 22-year wrestling career.
One of Benoit’s signature moves was a diving headbutt off the top rope. He once told Chris Nowinski, a former wrestler and medical doctor whose own career was cut short by head injuries (among others like Daniel Bryan, Corey Graves, and Christian), that he had suffered “more concussions than he could count.”
Jonathan Coachman, who worked as a WWE announcer from 2003 to 2008, said he experienced “between 10 and 20 concussions” over that time—or 2-4 a year.
Nowinski, too, recalls wrestling “with bad headaches, and in a fog every night.” After retiring from the sport, he founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation, through which he has collaborated with Dr. Omalu.
Dr. Omalu examined Benoit’s brain after his suicide and said it resembled that of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. Benoit was 40.
He also conducted an analysis of the brain of Andrew “Test” Martin, a former WWE wrestler who died at age 33 from an oxycodone overdose. Martin, too, showed signs of CTE.
3. THEY AREN’T THE ONLY ONES.
In a 2009 Outside the Lines story, Dr. Bailes said, “With Andrew Martin as the second case, the WWE and the sport in general have to ask themselves, ‘Is this a trend?’ The science tells us that jumping off 10-foot ladders and slamming people with tables and chairs is simply bad for the brain.”
In response, the WWE doubted the “veracity” of the tests, adding:
Dr. Omalu claims that Mr. Benoit had a brain that resembled an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s, which would lead one to ponder how Mr. Benoit would have found his way to an airport, let alone been able to remember all the moves and information that is required to perform in the ring.
The dense denial of those remarks is astounding. The WWE seemed to suggest that Benoit was of sound mind when he murdered his wife and son and then hanged himself on a weight machine, with Bibles laid out next to his loved ones’ bodies.
At least 20 wrestlers have killed themselves, including Benoit, Chris Kanyon, Mike Awesome, Sean O’Haire, Crash Holly, Tojo Yamamoto, Yukon Eric, “The Renegade” Rick Wilson, and Kerry Von Erich. Many suffered from depression and other mental disorders symptomatic of CTE. Kanyon reached out to Chris Nowinski before he died, saying he’d had at least 12 concussions and felt they had impacted his mental health. Nowinski “would not be surprised if Chris [Kanyon] was suffering from CTE when he passed away.”
Kanyon and the other names above belong in the same category as former football players like Junior Seau, Andre Waters, and Terry Long—all of whom showed signs of CTE and its resulting mental disorders, and all of whom committed suicide.
For many, Benoit’s actions may evoke O.J. Simpson, whom Dr. Omalu has said he would “bet [his] medical license” has CTE, a condition that would help explain Simpson’s violent behavior and suicidal ideations.
In 2015, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, one of the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit, was charged with the 1983 murder of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino. But in June 2016, a judge ruled Snuka mentally unfit to stand trial. Snuka did not know what year it was, and could not name the current President. (He would be reevaluated later that year.)
Given the state of Snuka’s, Benoit’s, and Martin’s minds, and the never-ending rash of industry deaths and suicides, it’s no wonder that wrestlers like Mick Foley, Kevin Nash, Rob Van Dam, and Chyna (R.I.P.) have all pledged to donate their brains to science after they pass.
4. DANIEL BRYAN RETIRED BECAUSE OF CONCUSSIONS.
Over the past several years, the WWE (like the NFL) has overhauled its concussion policy. It has banned dangerous maneuvers like Tombstone Piledrivers and chairshots to the head. Wrestlers who experience concussion symptoms must pass an ImPACT test and be cleared by doctors before returning to the ring. (For example, in May 2016, “Certified G” Enzo Amore missed three weeks after suffering a concussion at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view.)
One superstar whom WWE doctors would not clear was underdog-turned-top dog Daniel Bryan. In February 2016, the 34-year-old Bryan shocked the world by retiring at the peak of his powers. He did so with tears soaking his beard, telling the crowd:
Within the first five months of my wrestling career, I’d already had three concussions. For years after that, I would get a concussion here and there… and it gets to the point when you’ve been wrestling for 16 years that it adds up to a lot of concussions.
Bryan, who has reportedly suffered seizures from his numerous head injuries, added, “Maybe my brain isn’t as okay as I thought.”
Bryan later told ESPN’s Jonathan Coachman that he’d had ten “documented” concussions, “But you can’t document them all.” Like Chris Benoit, Daniel Bryan often launched himself headfirst from the top rope.
The WWE deserves credit for telling Daniel Bryan “No,” and for instituting a concussion protocol a la the NFL’s (if only for PR reasons). But questions remain about the aim and efficacy of that protocol, and the quality of company doctors.
5. THE WWE’S MEDICAL DIRECTOR DOESN’T THINK CTE IS A BIG DEAL.
The WWE’s Medical Director, Dr. Joseph Maroon, is infamous for downplaying the prevalence and gravity of CTE. (He is played by Arliss Howard in the film Concussion; it is not a flattering portrait.) He calls the issue “over-exaggerated” and says that riding a bike or a skateboard is more dangerous than playing football. Though Dr. Maroon made the right call with Daniel Bryan, in general it’s hard to believe that he will take concussions and CTE as seriously as he should.
In a jaw-dropping interview on The Art of Wrestling podcast, former WWE Champion CM Punk—who, like Daniel Bryan, retired early for his health—said that the WWE medical staff allowed him to wrestle with concussions and other serious injuries despite his pleas for treatment. Punk said that post-concussion syndrome brought him to his knees after many matches, “and I’m either puking for real or I’m just dry heaving because I don’t have anything in my stomach. I have no appetite. I don’t know what is up and what is down. I can’t sleep. I can’t f***ing train.”
During the 2014 Royal Rumble—not coincidentally, his last match in the WWE—Punk claims that he rolled into the corner of the ring and told the doctor he was concussed, and that the doctor essentially replied:
(The doctor in question, Chris Amann, sued Punk and podcast host Colt Cabana for defamation, seeking $1 million in damages. That case was scheduled to go to trial in June 2016 and presumably has been settled.)
Punk also said (in stronger/bluer terms) that the WWE’s concussion test is a joke, that he passed it when everyone knew he was concussed. He believes that the WWE’s and NFL’s much-hyped concussion protocols are simply PR moves: “WWE doesn’t do anything to protect the wrestlers; they do things to protect themselves.”
Wrestling writer and podcast host David Shoemaker (aka The Masked Man) agrees, writing, “of course the WWE’s concussion policy is driven by PR concerns… And what’s more, that’s exactly why the NFL is doing it too.”
Given the impossible gauntlet that the WWE inflicts upon its wrestlers, and the Independent Contractor status with which it saddles them, it’s hard to argue with Shoemaker or Punk.
(Click below for Part 2.)