If the wrestling community is truly serious about addressing the problems that cause performers like 38-year-old Eddie Guerrero to die, the industry as a whole must institute a system-wide policy that respects the performers as human beings and protects their life-long health. If we agree that the human cost is too great—that seeing 30-year-old wrestlers consistently die as a result of preventable problems is unacceptable—than this business must reinvent itself in a way that pays honor to the wrestlers on a professional and personal level. The major organizations of the present, World Wrestling Entertainment and Total Nonstop Action, must decide whether it is simply enough to pay tribute to Eddie Guerrero in the form of symbols like armbands and video clips while allowing, meanwhile, other wrestlers to go down the same road or whether to choose to correct the mistakes of organizations past (WCW, WWF, and ECW, all of whom allowed this problem). They must, in essence, correct the mistakes of the past as well as the hypocrisy of the present.
As a wrestling fan, I was moved by the WWE tributes to Guerrero. But the faces of wrestlers worn by tears, aghast and overwhelmed are merely empty gestures unaccompanied by action. The only thing I want to take away from this tragedy is a new respect for wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero before they die. They are cattle in their professional lives, but lauded in death.
McMahon’s reluctant step, in a meeting in Sheffield, England on November 21, to institute comprehensive and independent drug policy that will test for abuse of prescription and illicit drugs, performance-enhancing drugs, and cardiological health is a vital and necessary first step and, if properly implemented, will be the first significant step McMahon has made in his position as promoter of WWE to address the problem ever. The company’s first effort, from 1992-1996, was riddled with errors and ultimately dropped.
In the end, it is McMahon’s vision of professional wrestling that has driven what wrestling has become. Professional wrestling in 2005 is significantly different from professional wrestling of 1975 and the changes are reflections more of McMahon (and his various influences), who monopolized the industry, than of changes in culture over time. His legacy is not merely the scripted comedy skit; it is of the steroid body. McMahon has tacitly—and in many cases directly—influenced the size of his performers over the quality. Ironically, this is a quality of McMahon that Guerrero’s career had some part in changing. McMahon is neither immoral nor inhuman; but he is a callous and irresponsible leader and his dereliction has led to fatal consequences.
In a larger context, WWE wrestlers are continual victims. Wrestling is, most fundamentally, an unfortunate microcosm that represents the free market’s resistance to change and its exploitation of individuals. Congress couldn’t possibly care enough to regulate. Wrestling has never regulated itself. And wrestlers have been unable to muster the power necessary to form a union to represent their interests. Even with the lightest schedule in WWE history, wrestlers today work harder, longer, and with greater physical consequences, than any other American athletes.
WWE’s drug policy is not, in itself, a flawed concept. Without knowing how it will be implemented, it seems to be everything that people have been calling for in response to the deaths that have dominated the last decade and that have, until recently, mostly affected former stars from the 1980’s in their thirties and forties. Heart problems, as seem to be related to long-term steroid use, have been a key cause of the deaths. Drug use is prevalent in the industry. But it does not address the root problem that drives wrestlers to abuse pain pills and, to a lesser extent, illegal drugs. It does not address the values of a business that encourages and allows use of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, or other performance-enhancing drugs.
The lengthy and stressful schedule is still a problem. Batista’s recent decision to rehab his torn lat muscle instead of have surgery on it in order to reduce his time out of the company is disturbing, but it reflects a decision more quietly negotiated by WWE talent every day. Wrestlers often work on tour with significant injuries. In a recent, and disturbing, instance, WWE fired a wrestler (Test) who was injured at the time. Another (Dawn Marie) was fired while pregnant. Wrestlers should be given time off in cycles regardless of their health and it should be mandated that they are taken off the road in case of serious injuries. Instead, wrestlers often turn to pills (Nick Dinsmore, known as Eugene, was recently suspended for fainting publicly after taking a significant amount of Carisoprodal [Soma], a commonly-abused muscle relaxant), alcohol, and drugs such as marijuana and cocaine to dim the pain.
The value that this business assigns to unnatural bodies may be an even larger problem. Randy Orton was criticized on air when he lost weight while rehabbing an injury. Chris Masters was pushed above more talented and seasoned wrestlers in OVW and put in a position based on his body type (“This is a piece of art, JR”). But the history reaches back further and the depth of the problem reaches far deeper. It is not enough to say “no steroids” but expect the same bodies.
This business cannot change simply by mandating a change of behavior in its performers, though creating a standard for their behavior is a welcome improvement. This business cannot change simply by changing the standards of performance and look that its viewers must accept, though wrestling fans create the demand for the product of today. This business will not change until it looks inward and realizes that the main source of its problems is the values it creates and the irresponsible policy it perpetuates. Making the right choices now will be expensive and will change the business significantly but the business isn’t worth saving at the cost of another father.
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