EXCLUSIVE: Linda McMahon’s WWE Medical Director Met With Chris Benoit Brain Experts in 2008

In a December 9 article at ESPN.com about the brain damage of yet another dead pro wrestler, Andrew “Test” Martin (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4724912), World Wrestling Entertainment – the company of Connecticut U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon – stated  in part:

“WWE is unaware of the veracity of any of these tests, be it for Chris Benoit or Andrew Martin…. WWE has been asking to see the research and test results in the case of Mr. Benoit for years and has not been supplied with them.”

The second sentence is a grossly, and characteristically, misleading statement by the McMahon death mill. The following background reveals that “lie” may not be too strong a word.

Here’s the full chronology.

In June 2007 WWE star Chris Benoit murdered his wife and their son, and killed himself. Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler who had been forced to retire because of the cumulative effects of in-ring concussions, had started a research and advocacy group, and Nowinski prevailed upon Chris Benoit’s father, Mike Benoit, to donate his son’s brain for studies by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pioneering researcher of what is being called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Later in the year Nowinski and Mike Benoit widely publicized Omalu’s research.

In March 2008 WWE began baseline neurological testing for its performers, using an emerging system of sports-medicine protocols called ImPACT. WWE itself did not announce this change. However, in an April 11, 2008, news release, Sports Legacy Institute’s Nowinski, citing “anonymous wrestlers,” reported: “WWE management has instituted a concussion management program. At a mandatory meeting for all performers in early March WWE performers took a computerized neuropsychological testing protocol, which evaluates such things as memory, cognitive skills, and reaction time. They will be re-tested aggressively every 6 months to look for long term health issues, as well as re-tested after suspected concussions to help determine when it is safe to return to in-ring action.”

According to Dave Meltzer, publisher of the authoritative Wrestling Observer Newsletter, March 2008 corresponds with when Dr. Joseph Maroon was hired to coordinate WWE’s ImPACT program and supervise the work of two doctors who henceforth traveled to all WWE shows.

On October 1, 2008, Dr. Maroon visited the Brain Injury Research Institute in Morgantown, West Virginia. The institute is co-directed by Dr. Julian Bailes, chair of the neurosurgery department at West Virginia University, and Dr. Omalu, a medical professor and coroner now based in California. Also present at the meeting were the brain institute’s general counsel, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Peter Davies, a professor of pathology and neuroscience at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

On the phone with me this morning, Omalu was hopping mad about the WWE statement to ESPN. “Dr. Maroon was there with us and he was shown all our research information, slides, and specimens – on Chris Benoit and all the athletes’ brains we studied,” Omalu said.

The only possible confusion about any of this would be painfully hairsplitting. But that’s WWE’s m.o.

Maroon also has long been a team physician for the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and a familiar NFL consultant throughout the public debate in recent years – culminating in hearings earlier this year before the House Judiciary Committee – over football concussions. An impossibly tortured rationalization could be offered to the effect that when Maroon was in West Virginia, he was representing the NFL but not also WWE.

The WWE corporate website prominently calls Maroon the company “medical director.” Maroon’s own website and bio at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center say he became WWE medical director “in 2008,” though not the month. Again, March 2008 was when the company hired Maroon with a brain-injury portfolio, whether or not the title at the time was “medical director.”

Omalu pointed out that there is a lot more to how this story relates to the slow and grudging acceptance of his research by the NFL as well as by WWE. The October 2008 meeting was his third with Maroon dating back to 2006. Like WWE, the NFL started with a bureaucratic Alphonse-and-Gaston act of pretending to ignore Omalu or discredit his research. More on all that another day.

For now, the story is that WWE’s medical director was given full access to Chris Benoit brain studies, in person, 14 months before WWE told ESPN that the company “has been asking to see the research and tests results in the case of Mr. Benoit for years and has not been supplied with them.”

This morning I emailed and left a voicemail message for Dr. Maroon in Pittsburgh. If he, or WWE or the McMahon family’s litigious attack dog Jerry McDevitt, has anything to add to our understanding of this scenario, I will post it immediately.

The next question is whether the Connecticut media will make this latest tale of WWE death and deception stick to Linda McMahon, who was merely CEO of the company and is the wife of chairman Vince McMahon.

Or will this be treated as just another political fun-and-games story from the wacky world of wrestling?

Irv Muchnick

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