Just Blame Vince McMahon: An Assessment of the Media Treatment of Pro Wrestling

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Just Blame Vince McMahon: An Assessment of the Media Treatment of Pro Wrestling
(Photo by Jeff Gentner/Getty Images)

Steroid scandals. Liability lawsuits. Predatory condemnations by the Parents Television Council. 

Cold, hard statistics on the number of professional wrestlers who have died are referenced and exploited by media sharks honing in on the bloodied eye of a profitable branch of the entertainment industry.

The easy response to the latest tragedy is to censure Vincent Kennedy McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman; to decry the so-called barbaric schedule that the business demands from its performers and deplore the content of professional wrestling.

Yet, it is questionable as to how the blame and the criticism can be laid solely at the feet of one man. 

Provided facts, statistics, and context, can Vince McMahon truly be convicted as the perpetrator of the ills and misfortunes of professional wrestling?

Further, is professional wrestling an island unto itself in the tumultuous sea of immoral content and tragic losses?

Mick Foley, known in the wrestling world as the Hardcore Legend and a New York Times best-selling author on multiple occasions, does not believe that the negative media attention is fully warranted, nor is Vince McMahon deserving of the vilification he often receives.

Neither do I.

Eric Cohen, currently of About.com, compiled a list of professional wrestling personalities that died before the age of 65. It is by no means a comprehensive list of every wrestler or manager that has passed away, though it is the most referenced list in the media.

It is the exposure of this particular list that has put subject under such scrutiny.

The total number of names on the list is 105 men and women who have met untimely ends. Common causes of death include heart failures, drug overdoses, and fatal cocktails of prescription pills and alcohol. 

Other, less common causes of demise include auto accidents, murder, and suicide. 

It sounds horrific, and each one is its own separate tragedy. However, similar tragedies occur every day in every genre of sports, entertainment, and the lives of people who do not wilt under the spotlight of fame.

Media outlets would have you believe that each and every one of these tragedies should be burdened by the shoulders of one man.

Yet, of the 105 names on the list, a mere 20 worked for Vince McMahon at some point in their careers. Of those 20, only four were active on the WWE roster at the time of their demise. 

Some, such as Yokozuna and Davey Boy Smith, among others, had been released by Vince to address certain health issues. Weight issues and addictions to substances deemed unhealthy have been among reasons that Vince released superstars.

Davey Boy Smith had struggled through an unsuccessful rehabilitation, paid for by Vince McMahon, before his eventual release for choosing to return to the misuse of narcotics.

Yet, professional wrestling is not the only genre of entertainment that is beset by its stars stumbling into tragic ends.

Most recently, Hollywood mourned the loss of Heath Ledger. The enigmatic star of Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight died at the age of 28 from a toxic combination of prescription medication. He joins a long list of Hollywood tragedies, including Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

According to tallies maintained by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury, 993 people have died playing football, including the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. The time period was between 1931 and 2003. 

Anabolic steroids have been a hot topic of discussion in professional wrestling. 

Acquitted of distributing steroids to his wrestlers in 1994, McMahon is beset by accusations and discussions in the media about the abundance and abuse of steroids in sports entertainment.

Denying that there has been steroid use in the past, and that there are those who feel that they are above the current Wellness Policy, is pointless. Documented cases exist, both in professional wrestling and in other sports.

In 2007, Sports Illustrated ran a story linking 12 wrestlers to an online pharmacy. In contrast, the report from Senator George Mitchell that opened up an interest from Congress regarding steroids in baseball included 89 Major League players’ names.

Ben Johnson was stripped of his 1988 Olympic Gold Medal for failing a drug test. He tested positive for steroids. 

Marion Jones confessed to lying about steroid usage. 

Several riders were dismissed from the Tour de France in 2007 on the charges of using banned substances.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to find a sport that is able to claim a pristine record when it comes to steroid usage. 

Highly respected Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross has gone on record stating that the ingestion and abuse of steroids and other prescription medication is a personal choice on the part of each wrestler.

Mainstream media would rest the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of Vince McMahon. He is not Atlas, however, and this is not a burden that one man can bear. 

McMahon may have a reputed belief of the body image a wrestler should project, but he does not administer the use, or abuse, of medication to his athletes.

What about the argument that the brutal schedule of the WWE makes the frequent use of prescription medication acceptable? Good Ol’ J.R. doesn’t buy that as a valid claim, and neither should anyone else.

McMahon has shown that he is willing to grant time off, when asked. 

The Undertaker frequently takes off a month or more each year. Edge asked for, and received, a few months off last year. Shawn Michaels is currently taking some well deserved paid vacation time. The examples are plentiful.

Most notably, perhaps, is the request that McMahon granted for Chris Benoit, mere months before that horrible weekend in June of 2007.

Steroids and brain damage from years in a hard-hitting wrestling style have been blamed for the startling events surrounding Benoit. Media outlets are not the only entities endlessly speculating on the cause for such a tragedy.

The sad fact is that we may never know what prompted the quiet, respectful workhorse to brutally murder his wife and son, and take his own life. 

Saddling Vince McMahon with accusations that cannot be proven won’t bring those lives back.

Yet, professional wrestling is the favored scapegoat of media sensationalism and one L. Brent Bozell III. The Parents Television Council attributed four deaths in 1999 to the evil influence of professional wrestling, specifically the “offensive filth” of SmackDown!, then airing on Thursday nights.

On May 27, 1999, in Dallas, Texas, a three-year-old boy was killed while playing with his seven-year-old brother. The media, and the Parents Television Council, were quick to blame the wrestling the child had seen on television.

Minor details, such as the autopsy report, were overlooked as the focus was placed on the clothesline-like maneuver that the boy demonstrated for police officers. Doctors conducting the autopsy noted that the injuries resembled a severe auto accident.

Neither the clothesline, nor claims by the boy that he jumped up and down on the prone body of his younger brother, were consistent with the severity of the injuries.

The Parents Television Council issued statements that included the words, “in the wake of tragedies like the Columbine school shootings and the killing of children by other children imitating wrestling moves they’ve seen on TV shows like World Wrestling Entertainment SmackDown!” in solicitation letters.

Yakima, Washington, on Jan. 16, 1999, was the scene of a 12-year-old boy severely beating his 18-month-old cousin. The infant died of injuries that were attributed to a jackknife powerbomb, as the 12-year-old was a fan of WCW.

After the savage beating, the 12-year-old returned to watching Brady Bunch reruns. 

Bozell attributed the death to professional wrestling. However, the boy’s attorney rejected the connection, and the final tally of injuries did not support the wrestling claim.

On Oct. 29, 1999, in Warner Robbins, Georgia, 24-year-old Earl Rose supposedly put on a World Wrestling Entertainment videotape and left alone seven children ranging in age from 15 months to nine years old.

A four-year-old brutalized the 15-month-old infant, resulting in the child’s death. 

Rose had a list of priors that included cocaine possession, driving without a license, and giving false information to police. Yet, the mother of these seven children entrusted her children to such a dubious character.

Somehow, Bozell overlooked the myriad of issues present and laid the blame solely at the feet of World Wrestling Entertainment SmackDown!, rather than the outrageous neglect fostered by Rose and the mother of these children.

Lionel Tate is likely the most infamous of cases using the imitation of professional wrestling moves as a defense. On July 28, 1999, Tate, a 170-pound 12-year-old, beat and killed a 48-pound six-year-old girl. 

He, and his attorneys, placed the blame on the vile influence of World Wrestling Entertainment. The catalogue of injuries, however, including a cracked rib, fractured skull, lacerated kidney, and over 30 bruises, defied that explanation.

The story Tate told regarding the incident changed no less than four times. Wrestling did not enter the picture until nearly a month after Tiffany’s murder. More striking, perhaps, is the absolute lack of remorse demonstrated by Tate.

The mother of Tiffany testified that, when she was told about her daughter’s tragic death, Tate “shrugged and rolled his eyes,” then asked if he could live with her and have Tiffany’s toys.

Tate was offered a lenient deal by the prosecution. His attorney, however, elected to rely on the professional wrestling defense. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life without parole.

The original deal would later go into effect when the sentence was overturned based on the lack of competency reviews prior to the trial.

Currently, however, Tate is serving a 30-year prison term for violating his probation and possessing a gun. Additionally, he is concurrently serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

Not once has Bozell, the Parents Television Council, or the media issued an apology for its sensationalistic tactics where professional wrestling is concerned. 

Clearly, in the above four cases, the responsibility cannot reasonably be assigned to World Wrestling Entertainment.

Further, during the unfortunate days following the tragic events surrounding Benoit, his wife Nancy, and his young son, attempts at reasonable discussion were shunned by the bloodthirsty vultures of the media.

Kevin Nash attempted to speak frankly about the difference between use and abuse of anabolic steroids and the potential connection to the grisly double murder and suicide. 

Any statement that he tried to make, however, was interrupted and twisted by his interviewer.

Karen Hanretty discounted the medicinal information that Nash, clearly intelligent on the subject, posited. 

She continued to badger Nash, who again attempted reason and a caution to curb speculation until the toxicology reports had come back from the lab. 

His suggestion was ignored in favor of further baseless condemnation of professional wrestling.

As little as one week ago, on April 15, 2009, the media pointed the finger of blame at World Wrestling Entertainment for the death of a special education nine-year-old boy. 

Damori Miles was left at home by his mother. During her absence, the young boy ascended to the roof of his apartment building and leapt off it. Strapped to his back was a homemade parachute.

His 10-year-old friend claims that the boy was imitating Jeff Hardy from the SmackDown vs. RAW video game.

Instantly, responsibility was attributed to World Wrestling Entertainment, rather than the mother who left her young child unsupervised.

A clear pattern has been established in the media treatment of professional wrestling. No mention is made of the myriad and frequent philanthropic acts undertaken by the entertainment conglomerate. 

Instead, professional wrestling is vilified as an industry beset by steroid abuse and intolerable violence.

Allegations of responsibility for instigating violence in children and adults run rampant.

The truth is that World Wrestling Entertainment and professional wrestling is a form of entertainment. The viewing of that entertainment, just like television shows and films with violent content, should certainly be done conscientiously.

Parents who allow their children to watch professional wrestling, or any form of sports and entertainment, must be held accountable to convey the understanding that the men and women who participate are trained professionals.

Does professional wrestling have its share of problems? Most definitely. As does the entertainment industry as a whole, sports organizations, collegiate environments, and the society we know as humanity.

As Nash said in the FOX News interview, blaming professional wrestling and Vince McMahon might be “sexy” to the media, but it is sensationalistic reporting with no consideration to the facts involved.

A jury of reasonable human beings would have no choice but to acquit Vince McMahon of all liability.

When, if ever, will the media embark on an equitable, responsible treatment of professional wrestling?

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