WWE's latest version of its Talent Wellness Program was introduced in February of 2006, just three months after the death of main eventer Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero was seemingly clean at the time but died of heart failure caused by arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, found in the coroner's report that also revealed Guerrero had enlarged organs synonymous with excessive long-term steroid abuse.
Although an admirable move by WWE, they were understandably accused of locking the gate after the horse already bolted—being reactive, rather than pro-active. After Dr. George Zahorian's 1991 conviction for dealing steroids and other drugs to WWF wrestlers, Vince McMahon attempted to alleviate the pressures on him by introducing testing to his WWF and his WBF bodybuilding venture.
Having spent millions of dollars on the failed WBF venture—an experience that wouldn't faze McMahon in pursuing the XFL project a decade later—Vince found that the bad publicity was so damaging it was costing the WWF too, hence the drug testing procedures conducted by Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc. The boss himself was, of course, brought to trial anyway in 1994, but he was not found guilty of any conspiracy to influence his stars to abuse steroids via Zahorian.
Incredible Hulk television star Lou Ferrigno left the WBF following the introduction of their drug testing program, which was arguably the finishing blow to the troubled enterprise. Similarly, the WWF struggled to hold on to top names around this time, including Sid Justice, British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, the Ultimate Warrior, and even Hulk Hogan—who jumped to rivals WCW, which did not appear to conduct thorough testing.
While McMahon tried to promote a "New Generation" of stars with smaller physiques and greater skills— including Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels—the WWF ironically became so browbeaten that it quietly abandoned its drug testing initiative in 1996.
With a rule of "three strikes and you're out," WWE's current Wellness Program, now six years old, should be applauded—not least for identifying potentially life-threatening illnesses in wrestlers such as MVP.
But there are problems with it, so much so that it can be as much a curse as a blessing for the professional wrestling industry.
The first and most obvious challenge that comes with the rules of WWE's Wellness policy is that it causes major inconveniences for the creative staff. With suspensions suddenly in place, last-minute re-writes to WWE storylines and angles become a nightmare for the creative team.
Of course, it's a small price to pay—and no greater than a wrestler's sudden injury—but the difference and difficulty in this problem lie in the way the creative team handles this.
Sometimes, a suspended wrestler is simply pulled from shows, as Sin Cara was following his early first violation of the policy. Other times, it's covered by a quick injury angle, as with R-Truth's post-Survivor Series assault performed on him by former partner The Miz (and there was another major controversy around that which we'll come to next).
But most of all, the process hinders creativity in such an absurd way that after two of three strikes, WWE become reluctant to push a wrestler (though Jeff Hardy was an exception, which speaks volumes about his abilities, charisma and the roster depth at the time).
This becomes detrimental, even contra, to the whole point of WWE's storylines and the premise that talent will be rewarded; the cream of the crop rising to the top. Currently, Randy Orton's status as one of the biggest names in the company, and a go-to guy in main event storylines, remains up in the air for this very reason. The same goes for Rey Mysterio, the only bona-fide Hispanic star with equal broad appeal.
Reports vary on the nature of Orton's violation, from anabolic steroids to simply a tainted supplement; the latter of which would seemingly absolve Orton of blame while he still endures punishment.
But the problem lies in WWE's inability to wholeheartedly write in otherwise excellent performers merely due to a couple of errors on their part. In Orton's case, one was ancient history from a different mindset, another possibly a genuine accident where he was more like the victim. Similarly, Rey Mysterio is believed to have been subjected to weight loss pills tainted with traces of amphetamines, and was tested while taking time to recover from injury and get back into shape in what some believe to be WWE's way of punishing him for taking so long. Strangely, they also only announced his suspension for the test results ten weeks after it was conducted.
Whether Randy and Rey, like many others, are innocent or guilty having lied through their teeth while attempting to manipulate WWE, the fact remains that the Wellness policy can hinder WWE's attempts to reward individuals who are otherwise talented, well-intentioned, and deserving of a position high on the card.
It's believed that last year R-Truth was tested and discovered to be in violation of the Wellness policy before the Survivor Series Pay-Per-View in which he and tag team partner The Miz infamously served as cannon fodder for the mighty Rock and John Cena, who used the show merely to sustain interest in their year-long build-up to WrestleMania XXVIII.
The following night on Raw, R-Truth was subjected to an attack from The Miz, disgruntled by their loss the previous night. This wrote off Truth as "injured" in television storylines to cover for his suspension.
This means that even though WWE knew Truth was subject to suspension, they didn't implement it immediately so as not to disrupt their planned Pay-Per-View show. They simply permitted him to perform for them in the ring because it suited them at the time.
With that rationale, what if during his last reign as World Champion, Jeff Hardy had violated the policy? Could they have had him drop the belt a week, even a month, before serving his suspension? How far does this flexible attitude take them?
In Rey Mysterio's case, had he been an active wrestler when he was tested and found in violation of the Wellness policy, would WWE have sat on the results for over two months like they did? If so, can they continue winding down or wrapping up a wrestler's storylines in a two-month window period? If not, then why not suspend Rey and R-Truth immediately?
As stated previously, the creative team do require time to devise a credible and acceptable angle for explaining a character's absence from television. But WWE needs to make up their minds: if a star violates the Wellness policy, does the creative team have a week to write him out? A month? What will it be?
It's unfair to make an exception for R-Truth just because he's in a match with John Cena and The Rock, while immediately pulling other wrestlers from storylines as soon as their test results are revealed.
This is an area where WWE needs to re-write policy, to give consistency and fairness to their talent.
At the aforementioned Survivor Series show, the main event of course featured R-Truth, who was already in violation of the Wellness Program policy, and none other than The Rock.
The Rock, Hollywood action star that he is, is bigger than he's ever been, both figuratively and literally. There is little doubt about that in either perspective.
Not lost on many fans in the wake of Survivor Series where The Rock stepped into the ring for a match the first time in over seven years was the fact that his physique appeared worthy of Wellness Program testing, while Truth was believed to be suspended for using synthetic marijuana.
Assuming Rock wasn't subjected to the scrutiny of the Wellness Program, the reasoning behind this was often that The Rock was not a full-time wrestler, as R-Truth was.
Shouldn't a part-timer be subjected to as much, if not more, scrutiny that's placed on full-time performers? What if another outside entertainer took part in a one-off match and was found to suffer from a condition that could seriously threaten their well-being? Isn't that the point of a Talent Wellness Program—to also ensure the well-being and wellness of in-ring performers?
But there is another excuse, one that WWE never tires of utilizing in order to justify failing to pay for travel, accommodation, health care costs or pension plans: wrestlers are independent contractors, not on the books as employees (even though their contracts far more resemble those of iron-clad employee agreements).
So if The Rock was merely a one-off special attraction, what was he if the full-timers were merely independent contractors?
WWE needs to define who is subjected to testing, but the problem here is that doing so would mean re-defining their entire employment structure.
We all know that The Rock was an independent contractor as much as Snooki or Maria Menounos were, though even these should undergo Wellness Program testing if just for the sake of legalities. And we all know that the contracts Vince McMahon forces on recruited talent makes them undoubtedly unequivocal employees.
But to admit that would compromise the same profit-hungry motivation that got their last testing procedures abandoned in 1996, and makes Linda McMahon run for the Senate so she can negotiate further deregulation and tax breaks for her husband's company.
Another problem with the Wellness Program is that it subjects performers to the same kind of punishment whether they've tested positive for potentially life-threatening anabolic steroid abuse, or smoking pot. The latter is a punishable offense even while wrestlers are getting drunk at bars and getting into fights in taxi cabs like Chris Jericho did.
Of course, the law is the law, questionable as its logic often is, and reason is something activists fight for in order for law to take it into account. The fact remains, marijuana is in most parts of our world illegal, and though we can argue the motivations for this all day, companies like WWE should adhere to the law and act in accordance with it. Anything else would be a potential public relations headache.
But to consider cocaine in the same category as marijuana is absurd and absolutely not in accordance with many laws. It even carries the risk of sending a message to WWE's young audience that cocaine is worthy of the same categorization they see marijuana included in. This is pretty rich considering all the positive pot references in previous years: from DX's "4:20" comments, to the Godfather's catchphrase of "light a fatty for this pimp daddy." These angles were far removed from the dark, sinister portrayal of serious drug use by Hawk of the Legion of Doom, with Droz as his "pusher."
But even beyond this, context is lacking not just on wrestlers' inclination to wind down with a few tokes on a doobie, but also on the wider reasons for the use of drugs of various kinds.
Former partner to Shawn Michaels in the real-life party animal tag team of The Rockers. Marty Jannetty has recently ranted about the long-term pain wrestlers suffer from in-ring action, high-impact moves, and grueling schedules that keep causing stars like Brock Lesnar, Batista, John Morrison and Chris Jericho to seek hiatus.
Without individual "offseasons" for each wrestler, WWE don't seem to realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot. With one in place, there would be fewer wrestlers suffering burn-out, and no doubt fewer of them also testing positive for short-cut quick-fixes. There's no wonder "straight edge" CM Punk openly admits his career will be a short one.
As mentioned at the start, there is a tragic irony to the concept of all this.
When Vince McMahon pursued his beloved World Bodybuilding Federation project, the International Federation of BodyBuilders he used to gain publicity for it also found their talent roster raided by him. So in order to compete, they stopped drug testing. But then McMahon was subjected to federal investigation, and he himself instigated testing in both the WWF and WBF. After the WBF folded, IFBB continued even after having abandoned its drug-testing programs.
In 1996, McMahon dropped his own testing policy because it was expensive to sustain, and rivals WCW, owned by billionaire Ted Turner, didn't appear to take testing as seriously. Few can blame Vince for discontinuing the program when others didn't do something similar.
Even today, despite the Wellness Program, McMahon and his WWE are subjected to far more scrutiny than TNA, especially after the Chris Benoit double murder suicide that in fact had very little to do with drugs or steroids than it did about mental illness from severe concussions.
But to acknowledge that would be to treat professional wrestling seriously.
This is why rights must be given to pro wrestlers—as employees—whether they are in athletics or actors' unions, or not. This is why the McMahon desire for government deregulation and a smaller state actually harms their own business product. Greater state intervention and regulation would take expensive wellness testing out of the hands of WWE, or even TNA and also Ring of Honor. It would mean that all pro wrestling organizations would be subjected to fair and equal scrutiny.
Ironically, it would mean less headaches for the McMahons.