Chris Benoit's untimely death in 2007 sent shock waves through the entire pro wrestling community.
The double murder-suicide saw Benoit, in a mentally deteriorated state, kill his wife and strangle his seven-year-old son before hanging himself with a cable cord from a weight machine. With WrestleMania taking place in Atlanta, just miles away from the scene of the crime, the unfortunate memory of Benoit's heinous actions come to mind no matter how hard WWE has tried to erase it.
Benoit's horrific actions subsequently raised questions about his obviously unstable mental condition but also raised red flags as his condition pertained to his employer—World Wrestling Entertainment.
Benoit was, and is still regarded as, one of the greatest technical wrestlers in the history of sports entertainment. Through Benoit's long journey from ECW, to WCW and eventually to WWE, he gained popularity with wrestling fans based mainly on their respect for his craft.
Benoit wasn't a big talker, nor was he particularly charismatic. Despite the importance of these two qualities in pro wrestling, Benoit didn't have to embody either of them—that's how good his in-the-ring work was. It spoke for itself.
But during a an ominous pay-per-view in the summer of 2007, in which Benoit was slated to win the ECW Championship, he was nowhere to be found on the day of the event. He would never perform at another WWE live event again, as it was later revealed that Benoit had killed both members of his immediate family before killing himself.
Benoit's actions sparked a myriad of negative press and scrutiny that became WWE's worst nightmare. Astounding toxicology reports revealed that Benoit's mental state had been compromised through the use of a dangerous combination of prescription drugs and pain medication. The revelation of Benoit's condition gave way to inevitable implications of WWE's (Benoit's employer at the time) unforgivable negligence, a negligence that has since taken the form of WWE removing Benoit from their history entirely.
WWE's decision to simply ignore all things Benoit—in DVDs, historical references, etc.—demonstrates the company's lack of responsibility, despite being in a perennial position of power. Many would suggest that this lack of action is the same kind of attitude that has led to many untimely deaths of pro wrestlers, and WWE has shied away from any accountability in these tragedies, as well.
Wrestler mortality was one of many critical issues that lead to the demise of Linda McMahon's bid for a Senate seat last fall. McMahon's continuously ambiguous and incomplete answers to questions about WWE's prevailing substance abuse issues served as a chilling reminder of the company's flawed mentality concerning the many health issues that come with being a pro wrestler.
As McMahon ducked, dodged and derailed common sense questions raised by WWE's history of casualties amongst its "independent contractors," it became painfully clear that WWE still has a significant amount of growing up to do regarding its age-old issues of addressing concerns with pro wrestlers working under the WWE umbrella.
It's worth mentioning that WWE has made some strides when it comes to health issues amongst its wrestlers. WWE has worked with former WWE wrestler Chris Nowitski's Sports Legacy firm in an ongoing effort to address the adverse effects of concussions. As a result, WWE has since banned chair shots to the head, a dangerous stunt that Benoit was on the receiving end of multiple times.
As part of its maturing wellness policy, WWE has also banned a number of prescription drugs linked to health problems with pro wrestlers, including somas which were one of the more popular muscle relaxants for those living the grueling pro-wrestling lifestyle.
Still, WWE has a long way to go when it comes to its handling of health and wellness issues. WWE has cunningly made infrastructural changes in an underlying effort to create separation between "wrestling" and "entertainment." Branding its male performers as "superstars" and its female performers as "divas," WWE is implicitly resolving itself of accountability when it comes to substance abuse amongst its performers—a problem that has proven to be inevitable given the historically negligent working conditions of WWE.
If WWE has its way, the general opinion will dictate that substance abuse in an entertainment company is an isolated incident, similar (however hardly as accurate) to the school of thought when Heath Ledger passed away after overdosing on sleeping pills.
The tragic passing of Benoit was another in a string of cautionary tales illustrating the multiple holes in WWE's health and wellness policy.
While Benoit's death was the most impactful pro wrestling tragedy in history, it was not the first, nor will it be the last.
For the sake of pro wrestling and entertainment, one can only hope that WWE continues to advance and mature in its ongoing efforts to preserve the safety of its performers.