Recently Eddie Fatu, who was known as Umaga in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) passed away from a heart attack at the young age of 36. Fatu is one of many along the long lines of wrestlers that have died before the age of 60 and many of them died before the age of 50. This is a problem that only reached mainstream proportions when Chris Benoit killed his wife and seven year old son back in 2007. The Benoit story was a big part of the news cycle for several weeks, but even then the sensationalism of a man that is a television star killing his family was the main reason why the story was such a big deal. There should certainly be more focus on why wrestlers like Benoit, Fatu, and Eddie Guerrero are dying. Guerrero’s death was certainly drug related and there is speculation that the deaths of Benoit and Fatu are linked to drugs, whether it be steroids, painkillers or both. One could imagine the uproar that would be taking place if football players, baseball players or basketball players were dropping dead before the age of 50 at a regular rate. There have been many theories/ideas that have been brought up about what companies like WWE and Total-Nonstop Action (TNA) can do to prevent more deaths like the ones mentioned above. Both companies already have drug testing for its athletes, but there should be more done.
One thing that those in charge of WWE and TNA could do to prevent wrestler’s deaths is to have regulated independent drug testing. This will prevent people that follow the wrestling business from speculating that certain wrestlers are not suspended because of their rank in the company. While there have been suspensions because of what WWE calls wellness policy violations (WWE, 2009). There is still the prevailing thought that there are those that are protected if they are “main event guys”. Having independent drug testing that does not involve doctors that are hired by the company and can therefore be influenced by the company will be not only good public relations for WWE and TNA; it will also protect wrestlers that may not otherwise be punished because of the company’s desire to make sure the most important wrestlers work every show possible. The key here is to make sure that the wrestler’s best interests long-term are being looked at. This situation is different from baseball in some respects in that when people discuss the need for baseball to have independent drug testing, the prevailing thought is that the record books need to protected and the health of the players is often seen as secondary. On the other hand when it comes to drug testing in wrestling, the health of the wrestlers is seen as more important and what the drugs do for the wrestlers is seen as secondary (but still important, especially when it comes to steroids).
The problem is that the idea of having independent drug testing is that for the most part independent drug testing is from an athletic commission. Testing from athletic commissions cost money. For example, the Nevada athletic commission charges $278.40 (MMA weekly, 2009) for each athlete they test. At an average edition of Monday Night Raw, up to 32 wrestlers can be tested. (WWE, 2009) If the show was taped in Nevada, it would cost almost $9,000 to test every wrestler. It can be argued that it is financially inefficient to spend $9,000 for drug testing, when the company itself already has drug testing. The only things that independent testing would do for WWE or TNA tangibly is give them good PR. The fact is that there is drug testing and there have been suspensions, so it is tough to tell a wrestling company to spend money without accusing them of favoritism. That’s not to mention the money that wrestling companies spend on things like lights, pyrotechnics, setting up the ring and other expenses that the company takes on. In other words why would a company spend money on something that they feel that they have under control? With all of that said, it is still a good idea, because human nature suggests that a company under no pressure to publicly address what happens on drug tests, other than suspensions (which in actuality is the choice of the company) may be drawn to making sure that the stars that the fans most pay to see are there . With an athletic commission making sure that everything is done with no bias, it is much more likely that a wrestler will get help and that’s what is the most important thing.
Something else that should be addressed to solve the problem of wrestler’s deaths, especially when it comes to WWE is the schedule. A look at the WWE website shows that there are about (WWE, 2009) 200-240 dates a year that WWE wrestlers work. Because of that wrestlers are forced to decide on what to do to get rid of the inevitable pain that occurs from working such a difficult schedule. If you look at the Four Horsemen DVD, you can see Ric Flair and Tully Blanchard talk about wrestlers working 365 days a year. So if you look at it that way, things have certainly changed in the last 25 years. From looking at the live events section of the WWE website, you can see that wrestlers never work on Wednesdays and Thursdays, they also rarely work the weekend of Pay per Views. At the same time, different things are expected from wrestlers in 2009, then they were in 1989. In other words the style is more physically demanding than it was 20 years ago. With that in mind, wrestlers (as anyone else would) are going to try to do things to numb the pain. Many times wrestlers are going to take painkillers to try to stop the pain and keep going for the next show. The problem is that people get addicted to a painkiller, that’s what happened to wrestler Shane Douglas (thefranchisefansite, 2009) in 2005. In actuality, 2005 is when Douglas checked himself into rehab for an addiction to painkillers. There has also been speculation that Fatu’s death is also related to pain pills (Pwtorch, 2009). There are several measures in regards to schedule that WWE could take (TNA’s wrestlers don’t work as many live events). One thing that the company can do is to give wrestlers scheduled time off once or twice a year. The specifics are not as important as making sure that every wrestler on the roster has a total of 8-12 weeks off in a year. That will allow the body to heal much more effectively and because a wrestler is not worried about pain on a daily basis, he or she won’t be as reliant on pain pills. Another benefit of time off is that wrestlers will have more time to spend with their families and have some kind of an idea of what having a real life is like. Even with the reduced schedule, wrestlers still spend more than half of their time away from home. Obviously this is something that can potentially cause problems within a family. Having wrestlers spend more time at home has more of an intangible positive effect on the performers, while the lack of necessity for painkillers because of more time off is a more tangible effect (ie: not having enough time at home is not going to be on anyone’s autopsy). Wade Keller of the Pro Wrestling Torch has been advocating wrestlers having more time off for years. He has stated that the schedule “plays with people’s lives.” Because of the increasing importance of Pay per Views and television revenue to the bottom line of wrestling companies, even from a purely financial standpoint, it may be better to cut back on non-televised live events. At the end of the day, having wrestlers feel as if they don’t need painkillers just to get through the week may put not only the wrestlers, but the company itself in a much better position long term.
The argument against giving wrestlers more time off would probably be the company saying that WWE going without someone like John Cena for three months is not financially responsible, especially since WWE is a public company and they have to answer to their shareholders. If live events and Pay per Views are down because top drawing cards are missing from shows without the excuse of injury, it is not just costing Vince McMahon money, but it is also costly for people that have invested in the company. Something else that would be argued is that the non-televised live event business, while not nearly as important as it once was, would be basically irrelevant if several performers were taking off for 4-6 weeks at a time (even if it is only one main event talent and several undercard wrestlers, it would still have a negative effect). The number one issue that may be taken with a potential plan to give wrestlers more time off is that the schedule of WWE wrestlers is lighter than it has ever been. Someone defending WWE may ask the question “how much lighter do we have to make the schedule without hurting our bottom line?” That is another strike against mandatory time off that is valid. A fourth strike against it may be that wrestlers will be worse off if they have nowhere to be (ie: work) and have to spend weeks at a time at home. Not only could wrestlers get into trouble, but they could also gain weight that will take weeks to lose. The worst case scenario being that a wrestler that is known for being in shape returns from his hiatus 20 pounds overweight, which either leads to him being off for a longer period of time or appearing in front of crowds and television audiences out of shape.
A third action that WWE could take to prevent wrestlers from dying early in life is to have wrestlers evaluated psychologically in order to see how they are handling the strenuous road schedule as well as the fact that they are in pain and have to constantly keep in shape. In sports like football and baseball, there are sports psychologists that are sometimes called upon by teams or individual players because of a specific incident that needs to be addressed. An example may be a pitcher seeking out help because he can’t find the strike zone for a month or a second basemen who for some reason can’t throw the ball to first base. Because the life of a wrestler has different demands and even someone that superficially appears to be handling the life and the lifestyle may be struggling internally, there should be someone with professional training going on the road with pro wrestlers just in case the wrestler needs to talk to someone. Who knows what would have happened if Chris Benoit had someone to talk to about his paranoia and his marital concerns? More relevant to today, who knows who needs someone to talk to that is keeping his problems hidden inside because he or she feels alone. As alluded to before, while it would be easier to just have the wrestler seek out professional help or have the company seek out said help after an incident occurs that scares the company, because the life of a wrestler is not only dangerous, but often times a life of solitude (ie: being away from family), it is good to have the chance to talk to someone that can truly help you and that has experience dealing with athletes. A doctor will know the direction to take a conversation that may take place with a wrestler that is worried about not looking as good as someone else does that is competing for a top spot in the same company. The one caveat to this idea is that unless a wrestler is in imminent danger of hurting himself or someone else, the doctor cannot do too much with the information that he/she is given. For example if a wrestler talks about taking two more pain pills than prescribed in a day, can the doctor say anything to the company about that? What if a wrestler admits to using steroids, can the doctor bring that information to the company before a round of drug testing? While those are interesting questions, the most important thing is prevention. The prevention of steroids, painkillers and overcompensation for variables that may allow for wrestling to be easier in the short-term are all things that can possibly be provided by doctors.
Wrestling companies would probably say the same thing against psychiatrists that they would say against independent drug testing. It would cost money to hire a doctor or doctors to travel full-time with the company. WWE and TNA would both publicly say that they have open doors and that any talent that has an issue with how they are being used or not having enough time with their family can step up and talk to front office management and have their concerns listened to. The companies may also argue that there is no guarantee that wrestlers would even confide in a psychologist. It would not be financially responsible to hire someone that is not going to be used, when they can always wait for a situation to hire a psychiatrist when it is deemed important and said psychiatrist or therapist will be used.
WWE and TNA as the two major wrestling companies in the United States have an obligation to their talent to look into any avenues that they can to make sure that in 20 years we aren’t talking about this generation’s group of athletes in the same vein as we do the wrestling “heroes” of the 1980’s. Independent drug testing, a lighter schedule and traveling therapists are just three of those avenues and while there are financial considerations that would make all three of them tougher on the pocketbooks of those in control of these companies (and in WWE’s case stockholders), the main focus of any company should be the well-being of their employees.