Best Seat in the House column by Chris Graham
A congressional subcomittee made headlines last week by announcing its plans to investigate the use and abuse of steroids in professional wrestling.
But is it possible that subcommittee members – including Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher – will miss seeing the forest for all the trees?
Virginia-based author and journalist Steve Johnson thinks that seems to be the case to him.
“I don’t know that the (steroid) problem exists now to the same degree that it did in the ’80s – but it almost doesn’t matter because the guys who are passing away now are people who were working in the ’80s and early ’90s who took drugs and who did things that were not good for their health that are catching up with them at this point in time,” said Johnson, one of the co-authors of an upcoming book on the life and death of WWE star Chris Benoit, titled Benoit, that is due for release next month.
The Benoit case – involving the murders of the wrestler’s wife and son and his subsequent suicide earlier this summer – is just part of the backstory to the congressional investigation into steroid abuse in wrestling. In the wake of the Benoit tragedies, which are suspected to have been linked in some way to the grappler’s longtime steroid use, World Wrestling Entertainment has stepped up its efforts to clean up its talent roster – with the most visible result of that effort to date coming last week when the company announced the suspensions of 12 wrestlers for violations of its drug policies.
The company has not released any names, but Sports Illustrated reported last week that several of the company’s top stars, including Randy Orton, Adam “Edge” Copeland and John “Morrison” Hennigan, were among those in the wrestling business suspected to have received illegal drugs from a pharmacy that is under investigation for providing athletes with steroids.
These kinds of investigations are nothing new – the impact of steroids on the wrestling business has been talked about at least since the 1970s, and was a big part of the reason for the re-emergence of pro wrestling on the national sports scene in the 1980s.
“When Vince McMahon nationalized wrestling in 1984, and the Hulkamania era began, the emphasis shifted more so than at any other time in the history of the sport to the big muscular, vascular monsters. If they were going to be cartoon figures in the ring and on TV, then they had to be by definition larger than life. And they were – from Hogan on down,” Johnson said.
“People don’t obtain those kinds of physiques without chemical assistance. And that’s what sold – and that’s what the WWE was based on for many, many years,” Johnson said.
But that all said, it’s more than the use of steroids that can be said to be to blame for the recent spate of deaths of ring veterans like Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, who died in 2005 and was found in an autopsy to have had signs of long-term steroid abuse.
“Wrestlers live a very, very tough lifestyle. In the ring, they take horrible, horrible bumps that result in serious injuries, probably more so in the last 10 or 15 years than at any time in the history of this sport. You go back to the ’20s, and somebody would grab a headlock on somebody and hold it for 30 minutes. That wouldn’t work today.Now you’ve got to be doing a triple-huricanrana into a moonsault off the top rope into a flaming bed of fire to impress fans,” Johnson said.
“So you combine that with the availability of recreational drugs, a fast lifestyle, young men, in some cases young women, and it’s really kind of a rock-star existence – and you know how rock stars have ended up as well,” Johnson said.
“You consider that, and then you also have to consider that even if you’re hurt, even if you’ve torn a bicep or injured your neck or back or something, you can’t afford to be out for too long in wrestling, because there’s always somebody who’s going to come along and take your place. And I think anybody who’s followed this sport to any degree can give you a laundry list of guys who came back two months too early, three months too early, four months too early from what doctors would recommend – and then that leads into the whole spiral of painkillers and prescription medicine and so forth. And the end result of it is it becomes a pretty deadly cocktail for a lot of people,” Johnson said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.