Guest Column

System responsible for wrestling deaths

Chris Benoit killed his wife, his son and later himself and Vince McMahon, chairman and owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, must bear some of the blame. McMahon, of course, did not force Benoit to kill, but he did create an environment where for many the only way to survive is steroid use and a steady diet of pain pills, alcohol and illegal drugs.

Pro wrestlers in the WWE have no health insurance, pay for their own travel and endure a brutal schedule on the road. Wrestling may be predetermined, but the people who perform in the ring are clearly athletes and though the punches may not connect, the bumps, falls and dives exact a huge physical toll.

WWE's athletes also understand that McMahon - the key decision maker for the WWE - has always liked big wrestlers with cartoonish muscles. Though the occasional wrestler breaks through by virtue of sheer charisma, the vast majority of those McMahon decides to "push" to the top have impossibly muscular builds.

For most human beings, maintaining the physique that will keep McMahon interested in making, or keeping, you a star requires the aid of steroids. Add in the cumulative damage that the demanding travel and nightly poundings take and the possibility for painkiller addiction becomes strong as well.

Nobody in the WWE directly makes a wrestler take steroids or pain medication. Instead, McMahon and his associates operate more subtly, leaving the actual decision to break the law, and thereby make more money, in the hands of the individual wrestlers.

McMahon creates a culture where for most people succeeding requires cheating, but the rewards of success are too strong for honesty to win out. The WWE could easily lessen the problem by rotating wrestlers and enforcing mandatory time off for injuries to heal and physiques to be pumped up naturally.

Unfortunately, the limited number of top performers and the long-standing mentality of the wrestling business keeps this from happening. Wrestlers work until someone drags them out of the ring. Wrestling management always makes the decision that pops the box office, the TV rating or the pay per view total that night with almost no regard for the long-term health of the business or its performers.

With the WWE as the only major wrestling organization in the country, performers have few options but to try to meet McMahon's physical standards. Though the WWE claims it tests for steroids, the group's policies has significant loopholes and no outside review.

Under the WWE "wellness" policy, steroids and painkillers are permissible as long as the athlete in question has a legitimate prescription. As you might imagine, getting a legitimate steroid prescription for a wrestler is about as hard as getting a White House pardon for a Dick Cheney staffer.

Even when an athlete gets caught with steroids and has no prescription, penalties vary depending upon the level of star involved. Major stars with storylines built around them often get "suspended," but still appear on television. This hurts them in the pocketbook, but barely punishes them and basically warns them to be more careful with their illegal drug use in the future.

The WWE system encourages steroid abuse and hides it under the thin disguise of easily obtainable legitimate prescriptions. It's a system set up to be abused and one that can only lead to more dead wrestlers.

What Chris Benoit did was unthinkable, but it was not unpredictable. When surviving in your profession requires heavy drug use tragedy becomes inevitable.

Daniel B. Kline's new book, "Easy Answers to Every Problem," comes out in September and can be preordered at He can be reached at


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