What role do wrestling promoters play in ensuring the long term health and welfare of their athletes once their contract is up and they have moved on to work for another franchise or depart from the sport entirely? That is the question posed by the recent class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 53 WWE alumni against the company and Vince McMahon himself.
Since the suit was publicly shared recently, the wrestling community has been actively debating the merits of the legal action. While it will have its day before a court of law, there is little doubt that fans and industry insiders alike are passionate about their views on the topic. Some have been quick to defend the WWE, while others have portrayed McMahon as a heartless executive with no concern for the wrestlers once under his employment.
The whole topic of concussion awareness is one that is at the forefront of sports these days, especially with the identification that many professional football players have been found to have suffered significantly from brain injuries attributed to their NFL careers. In the case of the WWE, though, there are some unique elements to this particular suit that make it quite different from that of the legal challenges ahead for professional football.
15 15. The Lawsuit Assumes That Wrestlers Are Unaware Of The Risks
When you examine the list of wrestlers identified as plaintiffs in the suit, one can quickly identify that most of these wrestlers were introduced to the sport through reputable wrestling camps. One of the first things that any qualified trainer will tell you upon entering the sport is that this is a rough industry, fraught with injury and that it is wise for anyone aspiring to become a star in wrestling to have a Plan B in case their career in sport doesn’t pan out.
The initiation for a wrestler includes conditioning and repetition to endure the specific types of “choreographed maneuvers” (as the suit identifies) to best prevent injury. But, as the late AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel once intimated during color commentary of a match in 1994, “When you fall right, it hurts. When you fall wrong, you’re retired.”
14 14. Allegations Are Out Of Timeline Sync
The most surprising name on the list of plaintiffs is Donald Heaton, aka Don Leo Jonathan. Heaton was a second generation wrestler, following his father into the pro mat game after serving with the U.S. Navy in 1949. Don Leo Jonathan is best remembered for his series of matches against Andre the Giant in the 1970s, which were billed as “The Match of the Century.”
13 13. Why Not Sue Ted Turner?
When you look at the list of plaintiffs, most of them were not exclusive to the WWE. In fact, many of them also enjoyed lengthy stays with the rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW). If this lawsuit were truly about the long-term health and welfare of wrestlers, and not simply a direct attack on McMahon and the WWE, why not sue Ted Turner?
Certainly Ted Turner, and any combination of corporate entities that were recognized as the official owners of WCW when Turner elected to buy out Jim Crockett Jr. and get into the wrestling business, would have as deep of pockets, if not deeper, than McMahon. Where are the statements of claim about injuries and ongoing maladies suffered in WCW?
12 12. Where Were The Lawsuits/Public Awareness At The Time Of The Injuries?
Injuries and deaths from wrestling are not new. In fact, in the 1972 movie The Wrestler starring Ed Asner, the script includes a short monologue of names of wrestlers who died while competing in the ring. That doesn’t include the number of wrestlers who were injured in the line of duty. If this current class action lawsuit is truly about holding the defendant responsible for injuries and long-term damages, where were the lawsuits at the time of the injuries?
11 11. How Do The Agents Factor Into This?
From the outside looking in, one could make the blanket statement that it’s Vince McMahon’s company and he should bear the responsibility for all that happens under his roof. Ultimately, that may be the case, but on a day-by-day basis, as wrestlers were reporting to work at arenas around the world, they weren’t dealing directly with Vince McMahon. They were getting their marching orders from the agents entrusted with the delivery of a successful event. Men like Pat Patterson, Arn Anderson, Rene Goulet, Tony Garea, Fit Finlay and more have held these positions and directly issued instructions to the wrestlers about what was expected of them on any given night.
10 10. Unlike The NFL, After The WWE These Athletes Did Not Retire.
In the case of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, participation in the class action lawsuit is timely. Having just been found incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 murder of Nancy Argentino, to follow up by supporting his mental health claim as a participant in the lawsuit, makes perfect sense. However, when Snuka departed from the WWE in 1992, that didn’t signal the end of his career. Unlike in the NFL, when football players make their exit from the league it usually signals their retirement from the sport, Snuka and many others like him have continued to be active on the independents as well as other wrestling-related ventures. Snuka went on to wrestle for another 20 years, including making special appearances frequently for the WWE in the years that followed.
9 9. Sabu, Axl Rotten? Let’s Review The Tape, Shall We?
8 8. Dangerous Precedent Is Ambiguous
7 7. Previous Unsuccessful Lawsuits
6 6. Wrestlers Make Decisions That Put Themselves In Harm’s Way
5 5. How Many Have A Track Record Of Questionable Cash Grabs?
Before professional wrestling achieved mainstream popularity and prime time visibility, they were allowed to speak openly when they appeared for media interviews. Aside from promoting the upcoming match or pay-per-view, a lot of their comments were off-the-cuff, and perhaps contributed to the propagation of many wrestling stereotypes. Read interviews from some of these plaintiffs in the 1980s and they don’t come across as the college-educated adults that they are, but instead that they got into wrestling because it presented an easy way to make a living.
4 4. How Do You Prove Which Injuries Were WWE-Related?
3 3. What Signals A Victory Here?
The lawyers representing the wrestlers will declare that this lawsuit is about creating safer working conditions for professional wrestlers both now and into the future. They start their campaign against the company with the deepest pockets in the hopes of securing a large financial settlement for a small group, perhaps hopeful that a victory will encourage more and more wrestlers to come out of the woodwork for their just rewards. Should they not also examine Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, Lucha Underground and other wrestling companies that are also part of the culture that is creating the modern style of wrestling? No. Because there is no money to be made there.
2 2. Why Not 100 More Names Attached To The Suit?
1 1. CTE Cannot Be Diagnosed Until Death
The most important detail here that most seem to overlook is this. Yes, through existing medical technology, we can identify if someone has suffered a brain injury with evidence to suggest concussions. While we can’t put a date on the individual traumas that turn up on a medical scan, a reasonable person might readily conclude that the damage could be related to a lengthy career in wrestling. However, it is critical to note that while medical evidence is actively being compiled, the only proven way to absolutely diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is after someone has died.
Lawyers are battling for judgment on a degenerative diagnosis that cannot be proven for the men and women seated in the courtroom looking for a verdict. Chris Benoit’s death and diagnosis that his brain condition was akin to a man much older than himself at the time of his death due to the repeated blows to the skull over a 20-year career did shine the light brightly on this concern.
No doubt, over the next generation, we will continue to learn even more, and our suspicions about the brain injuries of all wrestlers may be proven to be true. But it cannot be proven beyond all doubt in a courtroom in 2016.
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