Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Price of a Dictatorship

Now that Linda McMahon is officially the Republican candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, the questions about the plane crash victim list that is the tally of young, deceased professional wrestlers keep coming and coming.

The McMahons’ answer is always that, among the list of wrestlers who have died in the last 25 years, only five were working for WWE at the time. This sounds both good and bad. Good because it makes you think WWE, while a very large part of the business, is a very small percentage of the problem - even though five employees dying in such a short time span is still terrible. It sounds bad because the McMahons continue to divorce themselves from the issue. After the Chris Benoit tragedy in 2007 one WWE wrestler went on television and said, “People die all the time.”

Therein lays the problem. Professional wrestling, both as a business and as a spectacle (therefore making fans to blame too), is responsible for the deaths of these men and women. For years Vince McMahon has been saying he’s in the sports entertainment business, not the wrestling business. Well, guess what, Vince? Those are still wrestlers out there, just as they were in any other organization that has existed since you took over in 1984.

Vince McMahon put so many other companies out of business that there’s no one else for the mainstream media to blame for this. You can blame Eric Bischoff, Paul Heyman and Stu Hart for what Chris Benoit did just as much as you can blame McMahon. Benoit worked for a lot of wrestling companies beginning in 1985, and only worked for WWE for the last seven years of his life.

Percentage-wise, Stu Hart and his Calgary Stampede organization, and Fritz Von Erich with his World Class brand in Dallas, both long defunct, have contributed as much if not more to this list than McMahon. But Hart and Von Erich are both dead - of old age, unlike so many of their wrestlers.

The first wrestler to die during my wrestling fandom was Rick McGraw in 1985. He was wrestling for McMahon at the time. Should McMahon have been blamed? Or should the business in general have taken responsibility? The year before, David Von Erich died at 25. He never wrestled for McMahon. Neither did Gino Hernandez, who died at 29 in ‘86. Or Mike Von Erich, who died in ’87 at age 23. All three wrestled for Fritz Von Erich. Eddie Graham shot himself to death in ’85 and he was a promoter in Florida likely to soon lose his job because of McMahon’s hostile takeover of the business. I guess maybe you could blame Vince for his death.

At its core level, the way McMahon has run the WWF/WWE is not much different from how World Championship Wrestling (WCW, defunct since 2001) or Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW, also dead in 2001) were run. Nor any of the organizations that existed in the 80s and early 90s that died slow deaths themselves.

Brian Pillman and Eddie Guerrero, both of whom died while working for Vince, each worked in ECW and WCW before coming to WWE. Pillman worked for Stu Hart in the early part of his career. McMahon’s “on our watch” argument is silly because surely Pillman’s and Guerrero’s drug problems began prior to their arrivals at the McMahons’ doorstep. It’s also silly for McMahon to divorce himself from the 2009 deaths of Umaga and Andrew “Test” Martin simply because he was no longer paying their salaries.

Just the same, the drugs that lead to the deaths of men like Louis Spicolli, Chris Candido, Brian Adams, Curt Henning, Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith, and others, were likely taken not only to help them perform in their post-WWE careers, but to alleviate the pain from injuries suffered while working for WWE. and/or WCW or whomever else.

Vince made his own bed. By making himself the only game in town, he also made himself the only blame in town. What the McMahons should be saying is that the entire wrestling business has historically been bad for its talent, but that they have been working to change this since Benoit. The recent switch to PG-oriented programming, they should say, was not because of Linda’s Senate run - like so many are saying - but because presenting a PG show is easier on the talent.

While I am pleased to see that the wrestler death issue is being discussed again after it slowly faded away when the media was done with the Benoit story, it’s not exactly relevant to a Senate race. I don’t think Linda McMahon will be handing other senators razor blades and telling them to tuck it under their wrist tape then cut their foreheads when no one’s looking. That’s not how the Senate works.

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