Archive for December 9th, 2009

Senate Candidate Linda McMahon, Former Senator Rick Santorum, and Pro Wrestling Deregulation

The tale of deregulation in professional wrestling is one of postmodernism run amok. Some of it is told in a 1988 article I wrote for The Washington Monthly, which became a chapter of my 2007 book Wrestling Babylon.

Vince McMahon, Linda’s husband, is a mad marketing genius. With the emergence of cable TV, and with the deregulatory trends of the Federal Communications Commission during the Reagan presidency, pro wrestling’s old Mafia-like territorial system was undermined. McMahon’s promotion, then called the World Wrestling Federation, pounced brilliantly. The McMahons heavily leveraged themselves for a national expansion. They bought TV time slots out from under old-line local promoters; they made barter deals to set up an ad hoc syndicated network attractive to national advertisers; and with WrestleMania I in March 1985 — one of the first major pay-per-view events — they won their gamble.

Another milestone in their glorious odyssey was the deregulation of wrestling itself. This hybrid “sport,” classically, was a quaint institution somehow under the purview of the same crazy quilt of state athletic commissions that oversaw boxing.

The red tape of this regulatory regime was made palatable by the fact that it also enabled the perpetuation of what the wrestling carnies call “kayfabe” — the deadpan representation to the masses that this entertainment was spontaneous and on the up-and-up, without choreographed results.

Vince McMahon decided to kill kayfabe, famously, in The New York Times. His enemies said this willful destruction of the architecture behind suspension of disbelief would ruin the business. Of course, McMahon was right and his enemies were wrong. Wrestling became bigger, or at least more profitable for him, than ever.

McMahon had a direct economic motive: he wanted to get out from under athletic commission encumbrances — and, most especially, he didn’t want to pay the taxes they imposed. One of the first big tests was in Pennsylvania. WWF used the Pittsburgh law firm of Vince’s favorite attack dog, Jerry McDevitt. The young lawyer-lobbyist assigned to the WWF account in the Pennsylvania legislature was Rick Santorum, later a two-term right-wing senator. (When my Washington Monthly article was published, Santorum called me and read passages out loud, laughing uproariously.)

The demise of kayfabe didn’t affect the fans, who quickly self-selected into two camps: “smart” fans and “marks.” But it wound up having a profound and counterintuive effect on wrestling talent. With their audience either no longer believing in their magic tricks or highly skeptical of them, wrestlers had to push the envelope with hard-core antics, such as brutal chair shots that can only be faked so much. Perversely, wrestling is now, by a significant magnitude, more dangerous now than it was back in the day when they used to maintain, with a straight face, that it was all real.

The “kayfabe” reflex remains, but it is a mechanism almost entirely in the control of Vince and Linda McMahon. The techniques of public opinion manipulation and corporate spin have been market-tested, perfected, and taken to new levels. Wrestling, like Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of the Mafia, is American sports, American entertainment, American business … Americana.

And now Linda McMahon is one of the final two candidates for the Republican nomination for next year’s U.S. Senate seat election in Connecticut.

Irv Muchnick

More on the Real Brain Damage Caused by Linda McMahon’s Fake Wrestling

Pop quiz: What’s the same and what’s different about pro football and pro wrestling?

Answer: The National Football League, under pressure from Congress, recently announced changes in its protocols for treatment of concussions, and restructured the internal committee studying the problem. Meanwhile, Linda McMahon, until recently the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is running for the U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut and has pledged to spend up to $50 million of her wrestling-gotten riches in her quest.

Credit for most of the progress in the understanding the long-term effects of brain trauma in collision sports and entertainment goes to two people. Chris Nowinski, a Harvard grad who became a WWE wrestler but then had to retire after a series of occupational concussions made it impossible for him to function, started the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to public education and prevention in this area. Dr. Bennet Omalu is among the researchers whose brain autopsies of dead football players and wrestlers who died young, and often violently, show damage consistent with Alzheimer’s patients twice their age.

Omalu’s latest findings are on WWE’s Andrew “Test” Martin, who left the company with painkiller and steroid addictions. (His very nickname was an inside-wrestling joke about WWE drug-testing. A regular riot, these wrestling people are.) Martin, 33, became one of the many casualties of 2009: in March he was found dead in his Tampa condo.

Now ESPN.com has a piece about Dr. Omalu’s April examination of Martin’s brain (“Doctors: Wrestler had brain damage,” http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4724912). Omalu concludes that Martin — like Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and their son, then killed himself,  in 2007 — had a syndrome termed “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”

(In this context, whether drug abuse is a more or less important factor than brain damage doesn’t matter. Both are major ingredients in pro wrestling’s cocktail of death.)

After Benoit, WWE instituted baseline neurological testing for talent. The McMahons also kind-of-sort-of mumbled that hard-core “chair shots” by one wrestler on another were being discouraged. This meant that there would be no more chair shots — until there were again.

WWE has a pay-per-view event on December 13 entitled “TLC.” The initials stand for “tables, ladders, and chairs,” the props used to inflict punishment in this type of performance. In a promo for the show, wrestler Chris Jericho is shown taking a chair shot, after which cartoon cuckoo birds circle his noggin.

Next post: a crash course on the history and motivations of the McMahon-engineered deregulation of pro wrestling.

Irv  Muchnick

Review Reset: What the Critics Are Saying About Irvin Muchnick’s ‘CHRIS & NANCY’

“Great read for anyone who cares about wrestling or is interested in true crime.” – Eric Lyden, Bookgasm.com, http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/non-fiction/chris-nancy/

“Muchnick provides a great public service in exposing what he describes as the WWE’s ‘Cocktail of Death.’ Now its up to wrestling fans to demand action, or else continue seeing their heroes die early from avoidable deaths, often ending up destitute after enriching the McMahons.” – Randy Shaw, Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/_Book_Exposes_Pro_Wrestling_s_Cocktail_of_Death_7522.html

“Incredibly well researched … an incredibly valuable resource.” – David Bixenspan, SLAM! Wrestling, http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/Benoit/2009/10/22/11493831.html

“Very few books are ‘good’ and even fewer are ‘important’ – but this book is both.” – Author and blogger Anthony Roberts, http://www.anthonyroberts.co.za/?p=3651

“Muchnick goes where few others care to go.” – Mark Hanzlik, Sacramento News & Review, http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/content?oid=1317548

“Incredible retelling of the tragic story, with all its odd twists and bizarre turns.” – Rich Tate, GeorgiaWrestlingHistory.com, http://gwhforum.proboards.com/index.cgi?action=display&board=news&thread=8210

“Muchnick is hell-bent on discovering the essence of the cover-ups.” – Joe Babinsack, WrestlingObserver.com, http://www.f4wonline.com/content/view/10962/


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