The Decline and Fall of the Wrestling Civilization
Story by Chris Graham
It used to be my dirty little secret – I was a professional wrestling fan, and that meant that Monday nights were booked up, and when the circus was in town, I had to be there at ringside, if not closer.
And then something happened this summer that changed things for me forever as far as my dirty little secret was concerned.
I turned on “Monday Night Raw” back in July and learned that Chris Benoit and his wife and child had been found dead in their suburban Atlanta home – this was the news as the WWE decided to use its signature Monday-night block to run a tribute to the former world champ’s career.
Where things turned for me – and millions of wrestling fans like me – came when it was revealed later that same week that it had been Benoit who had been the perpetrator in the killings.
Intense media scrutiny of the wrestling business followed in short order – most of it unironically mirroring the circus that Vince McMahon has made wrestling into over the course of the past two decades.
“Wrestling historically has been sort of treated as a sideshow by most of the mainstream press – as an interesting medium creating an entertaining diversion. But now, though, that equation changed as a result of the Benoit double-murder/suicide – because it’s become an interesting, amusing, entertaining but potentially dangerous and even deadly sideshow. And I think there’s been a sea change in the media coverage because of what happened,” said Steve Johnson, one of the coauthors of Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport.
Johnson examined the media coverage of the Benoit story – and the veteran journalist and former editor of The News Virginian in Waynesboro when I was a cub reporter there in the late 1990s, found a lot that was lacking in the effort.
“You don’t realize what a terrible job the press does with a story until it’s actually covering a story that you know something about. I’ve found that to be true in my career, and I’m sure you’ve found that to be true in your career as well. When you really know the inner details, and then see reporters, who are by and large generalists, come in to try to swoop into a story that’s become hot for whatever reason, the coverage tends to be spotty at best,” Johnson said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – effectively the home newspaper to the tragedy because it had happened in the paper’s backyard – by and large did a solid job in its reporting, according to Johnson’s thinking. But many more people learned details of the investigation into the incident from cable TV – and the work there was spotty at best.
“These show are not intended to be news shows. They’re intended to entertain or amuse – almost like wrestling. You’ve got a good guy, you’ve got a bad guy, you’ve got people yelling and screaming at each other,” Johnson said. “But in this particular case, the Benoit double-murder/suicide, it made for such great TV on those nightly shows – night after night after night. I think it was on ‘MSNBC Live’ something like 12 nights in a row at least in some way, shape or form. The average viewer who’s looking at those shows is running the risk of being misinformed or uninformed or underinformed – if that’s where you’re getting most of your information from.
“So it’s a tricky subject to cover to begin with – because it involves wrestling, which has never been known for being on the up and up, and then you add people with their own agendas or media outlets, so it’s very, very difficult to get an accurate portrayal of what happened and what it means in the long run,” Johnson said.
But it wasn’t the effects of the media coverage that turned me off to professional wrestling. It was at first the WWE’s callous move to pay tribute to Benoit when it appears now that the company had at the least an inkling of what had happened before it went on-air with its Benoit-themed show, then its half-hearted attempts to explain away the deaths as not being related to the string of passings of prominent pro wrestlers in recent years that some are attributing to steroid use and abuse and others are saying are more a function of the tough life that wrestlers live.
I’m not alone in having been turned off from the sport in the wake of the Benoit tragedy. Ratings are down significantly from earlier this year.
“You’re right, Chris – ratings have been down. They came back up a little bit this week – but if you told most wrestling impresarios a few years ago that they’d be thrilled with a 3.3 on ‘Monday Night Raw,’ they would have been dismayed, to say the least. They would have been expecting ratings of 5, 6 or 7,” Johnson said. “I think the Benoit incident and the media coverage of it has had the effect of turning off a lot of the casual viewers – so we’re pretty much down to the hardcore fans. Whether that will continue into the future, I don’t know. But it seems like virtually none of the news that we get out of wrestling is good these days.”
The WWE has taken one step – not a bold step, I can say – toward addressing the use and abuse of steroids by its performers. Johnson views the move related to what the company calls its “wellness policy” the same way that I do.
“In the aftermath of this, WWE toughened – and I’m going to put finger quotes around that, ‘toughened’ – its wellness policy, and of course many wrestlers were suspended for 30 days because of steroid use or other perceived infractions of its wellness policy,” Johnson said.
“Anything is better than nothing – but as we saw a little bit during the media coverage of the Benoit case, from people who really know the subject, that wellness policy, as it was in effect at the time, had so many loopholes that you could pull the trucks off I-81 and drive them right through them,” Johnson said.
That could change if Congress follows through on its threats from the days following the Benoit tragedy to hold hearings on steroid use and other wellness issues in the wrestling industry. Johnson said if congressional hearings do end up being scheduled, “it’s more likely to be a dog-and-pony show than anything else.”
“But what is happening out there, very, very slowly, but there’s definitely movement in this direction, is that some of the state regulatory commissions – state athletic commissions, boxing commissions, they’re called different things in different areas – are starting to take a look at whether they should reregulate wrestling,” Johnson said.
“Wrestling had been by and large deregulated over the last 20 years – since Vince McMahon pleaded that state athletic commissions should not interfere with wrestling since it was not a quote-unquote ‘sport,’ it was an exhibition,” Johnson said. “Now several state athletic commissions are saying that, OK, maybe the outcomes of these matches are predetermined, but we require barbers to be licensed. Surely we should require some kind of licensure or other regulatory action on people who are throwing their bodies around and hitting each other with chairs in the head to entertain people.
“I think you’ll see a move among some commissions – and Georgia is already talking about this, and so are some others – to drug-test wrestlers when they appear in their state, just like boxers are drug-tested, or mixed-martial-arts/UFC folks are drug-tested,” Johnson said.
“That, I think, would be the single biggest thing that could affect the way the WWE operates. If a wrestler coming into Virginia down at the Richmond Coliseum has to take a random drug test when he comes in, that would be a sea change from the way the WWE has been able to work the past 15, 20 years.
“WWE has a history of not operating in states with tough sanctions. It didn’t run Oregon for a long time because of that. But if you have some of the major state athletic commissions starting to try and do things for the health and safety of their competitors, that is in my estimation the answer,” Johnson said.
It might not be the answer for me. I just don’t care anymore – and that’s saying a lot, considering what I’ve put up with over the years with wrestling.
I guess the Benoit tragedy made me see for the first time the other side to the business – the side where guys are on the road 250 days a year and ‘roiding up to try to keep up, and killing themselves in the process.
And as much as I enjoyed moonsaults and double dropkicks and inside cradles and the rest, it’s just not the same.
It’s just not the same.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.