Archive for June, 2010

WWE Board Member Lowell Weicker Spins for Linda McMahon

Former Connecticut senator and governor — and World Wrestling Entertainment charter board member — Lowell Weicker is a guest next Sunday on Dennis House’s Face the State on Channel 3. House previews the interview in a blog post at http://dennishouse.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/weicker-blasts-blumenthal-raises-trust-issue/.

At one point House  begins a question about Linda McMahon: “When her critics say you should not vote for her because of [World Wrestling Entertainment] programming, do you think –”

Weicker replies: “I think it is nonsense. There may be reasons not to vote for her. You may not like her stance on health care, that is fair enough. But not her association with WWE.”

On his blog, House does not say whether he follows up by noting that the most compelling argument against McMahon has nothing to do with whether WWE programming once was R-rated or now is truly G-rated. It has to do, rather, with the company’s occupational health and safety standards, the bellwether of a pandemic of hundreds of young deaths in an industry the mega-profitable WWE dominates.

Nor do we know if House asked Weicker (who says he supports health-care reform and has called critics of Chris Dodd “ankle-biting midgets”) how much money he has made from WWE stock options and dividends.

I guess we’ll have to watch Face the State on Sunday to find out.

Irv Muchnick

Muchnick Book Bonus – ‘The (Thwak!) Deregulation of (Thump!) Pro Wrestling (The Bureaucrats Behind Hulk Hogan)’

Originally published in The Washington Monthly, June 1988. Reprinted as Chapter 3 of Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal (ECW Press, 2007). Copyright 1988, 2007 by Irvin Muchnick.

WAHOO McDANIEL’S INDIAN-STRAP MATCH against Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin started out as just another day at the office. When he was supposed to bleed (or, as they say in the business, “juice”), Wahoo slipped a razor blade out from under his wrist band. Then, while Gorgeous Jimmy and his valet, Precious, distracted the crowd by arguing with the referee, Wahoo nicked a clump of scar tissue near his own scalp. His brow gushed copiously, and the ten thousand fans at Veterans Stadium popped with excitement.

Wahoo had juiced himself dozens, maybe hundreds of times in his career, but never with such portentous consequences as at the Great American Bash in Philadelphia in July 1986. This time a piece of razor blade got lost in the gnarls of his scar tissue, where it stuck like a golf cleat to a wad of chewing gum. Wahoo, formerly a punishing linebacker in the old American Football League, worked the rest of the bout with the blade in his noggin. When he returned to the dressing room, the chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, James J. Binns, saw the mess at close range. Binns ruled that there would be no more juice at the Great American Bash, or ever again in his jurisdiction. “Some of these guys have foreheads that look like raised atlas maps,” Binns later told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For Virgil Runnels (better known to wrestling fans as Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream), the commissioner’s edict was worse than a whack with archrival Ric Flair’s gold championship belt. Rhodes is chief booker for the National Wrestling Alliance. While the World Wrestling Federation may sell itself as family entertainment, Dusty’s minions appeal to the hard core.

Infuriated by Binns, Dusty Rhodes nevertheless took a back seat to his tag-team partners: the lawyers. Eighteen months later, after intense lobbying by the industry and a critical report by an audit committee of the state legislature, the American Dream won. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to put the athletic commission in a permanent sleeperhold, thereby removing any bureaucratic impediments to razor blades. The state senate is expected to follow suit. Commissioner Binns has resigned. Pennsylvania thus seems poised to join Connecticut and Delaware as states that have deregulated wrestling in the past five years and swelled to 19 the ranks of the states in which the sport is unsupervised. Of course, in some states that might be an improvement. As wrestling spins and kicks its way into a $300 million a year business, state governments have created a bizarre regulatory maze that omits the rules most needed and erects ones where none are needed at all. But when it’s the industry versus the regulators, it’s usually the regulators that go down for the count.

***

YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDERING if pro wrestling is a true competition. No, Virginia, it is not. Its action, though dangerous and often surprisingly spontaneous, is choreographed. The matches themselves are a kind of brutal ballet in which the performers improvise the “spots, communicating through whispers and body language to create the illusion of violent combat until the scripted finish. Promoters call the shots, usually through backstage agents, who decide who gets pushed and who generally ensure that the feuds circulate with all the freshness of “Dallas” subplots.

The first pro wrestling exhibitions in America were run out of carnival tents in the nineteenth century. The sport spread to cities in the 1920s, becoming a sensation on television in the late forties and fifties with shows like “All-Star Wrestling” on the old DuMont network.

Even then, regulators were having trouble keeping the sport under control. Fortunately, riots haven’t been a serious problem in New York since Antonino Rocca sparked a brawl at the old Madison Square Garden in 1957. An estimated 500 fans joined in that fray, which left two cops and several bystanders injured and 200 chairs broken. Prodded by a vigilant commission, the chastened promoters thereafter instituted the practice of blaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the public-address system at the conclusion of every controversial Rocca bout. While the partisans stood neutralized, security forces would spirit the bad guys out of harm’s way.

One of those villains, Dick the Bruiser, kept getting into so many fracases in New York State that in his words, “I was suspended longer than the Brooklyn Bridge.” Years later, when I asked the Bruiser how he managed to get himself reinstated, he winked and replied, “I called my mother.” Dick the Bruiser’s mother happened to be Indiana’s Democratic National Committeewoman, Margaret Afflis Thompson.

Pro wrestling went into orbit in the brave new world of video. The current Barnum of Bounce is third-generation promoter Vince McMahon, hypemeister and head of the Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation. He looks like Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals” might have had he pumped iron. He’s also a marketing genius. Today the WWF generates more revenue from such sources as pay-per-view cable television (where viewers dole out cash for each show) as well as videocassettes, kids’ dolls, and T-shirts, than it does from live ticket sales. Since the company is privately held it has not released its revenues. Its haul has been estimated at around $150 million a year.

In most states boxing and wrestling have been lumped together in a peculiar regulatory scheme. The favored term, “athletic commission,” overstates its purview. (More accurate is the name of Washington D.C.’s Boxing and Wrestling Commission — whose chairwoman, Cora Wilds, incidentally, resigned last year after reports of her doublebilling of expenses.) Across the country commissions range from independent, governor-appointed supervisory panels to the cobwebbed corners of departments of state or labor or consumer affairs.

The commissions’ promotion of safety standards for boxing is heavily subsidized by rasslin’. In New York, for example, wrestling generated $302,262 in 1987 — almost three times as much as boxing. Even in California, where boxing events are staged more often than any other state, wrestling revenues last year brought in more than double those of the sweet science ($271,806 to $122,292) through a 5 percent tax on gate receipts.

Beyond tax collection, the standard justification for wrestling regulation comes from people like Marvin Kohn, deputy commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission. Kohn argues that promoters have always wanted a government superstructure because “we lend credibility to their product.”

In New York State, credibility seethes from part 225 of the athletic commission’s rules. In Section 225.2 there’s the concession that we’re dealing with “exhibitions only.” On the other hand, Section 225.11 asserts, that’s no excuse for “unfair or foul tactics” such as “striking, scratching, gouging, butting, or unnecessarily punitive strangleholds.” (Necessarily punitive strangleholds will always have their place.) Miscreants are cautioned that “unsportsmanlike or physically dangerous conduct or tactics” can result in disqualification. And let’s not forget proper ring attire: fans of Kimala, the Ugandan Headhunter, and of Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake can sleep soundly knowing that the type and color of their trunks were approved by the commission, in accordance with Section 225.19.

The commission is charged with protecting the health and safety of its participants but doesn’t neglect the financial protection of various hangerson.Take Jose Torres, the $68,000-a-year chairman, ex-light heavyweight boxing champ and Norman Mailer’s pre-Jack Abbott literary protege. In New York, no wrestling takes place without the presence of ring inspectors, who get $39 per event and are responsible, among other things, for making sure the corner turnbuckle pads are securely in place. Their service is greatly appreciated by George (The Animal) Steele, who as part of his act frequently lunches on them both during and after his bouts.

The Animal, a former Detroit high school teacher with a heart irregularity, is more leery of the official commission doctor, who checks the blood pressure of all wrestlers before they perform. A 1985 show at the Nassau Coliseum featured a steel-cage match between Captain Lou Albano, then 52 and grotesquely obese, and Classy Fred Blassie, the Hollywood Fashion Plate, then 69 and with an artificial hip that forced him to walk with the aid of a cane. Thanks to the attending physician, we have it on good authority that Albano’s and Blassie’s diastolic readings passed muster.

***

OTHER STATES SET an equally inspiring example. In Maryland, wrestling promoters must set aside two ringside rows at every show for commission officials. In Missouri, the most heated issue is a ban against jumping off the top rope; to say the least, this prohibition cramps the style of Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, the acrobatic Polynesian whose coup de grace consists of diving onto his supine victim. In Oregon, they recently banned the blade; now when Portland fans clamor for blood, wrestlers simply do it “the hard way,” grinding a knuckle into each other’s foreheads or rubbing against ropes or ring posts.

In New Mexico, the blood-pressure tests are always a hassle because of the high altitude and spicy Mexican food. The big, wasted black man who bills himself as The Junk Yard Dog once flunked half a dozen times in Albuquerque before finally getting his pressure down to an acceptable level. Meanwhile, the show was juggled so JYD could go on later–making this the only known case of a wrestler’s being switched from the semi-main to the main event because of concerns over his health.

In Pennsylvania, the Byzantium of wrestling regulation, the buckets of red blood are matched by rolls of red tape. Long before the Wahoo McDaniel contretemps, the World Wrestling Federation complained about an official ringside commission table, which always had to be covered with a white tablecloth. The table’s sharp corners threaten to cause far more injuries than the cushioned mats that WWF wrestlers collapse on when they’re tossed outside the ring. But if the commission folds, as is expected, so might the table.

In 1972 an overeager commissioner named Joe Cimino ordered the strict enforcement of all amateur-style rules. At a Pittsburgh show, his referee dutifully set about disqualifying wrestlers left and right for fake punches, hair-pulling, and use of the ropes; an hour’s worth of scheduled matches lasted a mere 22 minutes. Since the show was being shot live for TV, this left 38 minutes, but those watching at home got a treat: an unrehearsed, honest-to-God, on-camera shouting match between Cimino and wrestler Bruno Sammartino.

So when the Pennsylvania athletic commission came up for review last year under a 1981 sunset bill, the wrestling community was only too eager to air its complaints. As it turned out, however, some of the best dirt came from people within the commission itself. The audit committee learned of turf battles between the executive director, a full-time staff official, and the commissioners, who were paid on a per diem basis to attend meetings and events but tried to direct the day-to-day operations. Further blurring the flow charts was a confusing district system, which had different commissioners enforcing different guidelines in each section of the state.

The auditors didn’t go so far as to recommend abolishing the commission — only cutting the numbers of deputies and trimming its authority. But once their report reached the legislature, the World Wrestling Federation’s savvy lobbyists pulled the levers on the fate of the beleaguered agency as expertly as Macho Man Savage throws a flying elbow. At a September 1987 show in Hershey, they handed out complimentary tickets, hors d’oeuvres, beer, and soda to the chairman of the state house Government Committee and more than 20 staff members of the Governor’s Office of Legislative Affairs and the Department of State. Three months later the vote flattened the commission.

But it was the legislation’s fine print that really rang the bell: not only was the state wrestling tax reduced from 5 percent to 2 percent, but the surety bond for promoters was raised from $3,000 to $10,000. Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer, an insider newsletter, notes that this last provision will have the effect of helping major promotions like the WWF and the NWA by shutting out smaller independent operators. “In other words, as usual, Vince McMahon got exactly what he wanted,” Meltzer concludes. You better believe it.

Linda McMahon Wants Your Vote … For Real!

Smart people – who are about half as smart as they think – express amazement that others can take pro wrestling seriously.

But for me, the question is a double helix. As I live and breathe, I will never be able to figure out why smart people are so dumb as to believe that everyone else believes. The bedrock truth of Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign remains unappreciated. That is the history of how her husband Vince, master of the pro wrestling universe, long ago let the public in on the joke, even if self-congratulating elites didn’t get the memo.

What the smart set also misses through all this is even more important – the proverbial elephant in the closet. The McMahons’ variation on wrestling’s cosmic thigh-slapper has a punch line: money and power. The exposure of their secret, which really isn’t much of a secret, shows that they did what they did for a reason.

It was the 1980s, and cable TV was transforming the wrestling industry from a confederation of small-time Mafiosi to a platform for global branding and marketing. Of equal importance was the government’s across-the-board embrace of deregulation. President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, Mark Fowler, famously dismissed television as “a toaster with pictures,” and eliminated just about every restriction on commercialization of the airwaves. “Kidvid” producers of Saturday morning cartoons brokered deals between toy manufacturers and broadcasters, who neatly divvied up the profits from both commercial air time and spinoff merchandise

Wrestling went nuts, too. The elephant lumbered out of the closet, and a promotional war broke out. Linda’s husband won the war.

One of the remaining problems was that the McMahons’ industry was still regulated at the state level: the same athletic commissions fighting the ongoing battle to keep boxing on the up-and-up also had jurisdiction over what the World Wrestling Federation (predecessor of today’s World Wrestling Entertainment) started calling “sports entertainment.” This was not only intellectually absurd but also commercially inconvenient. To the extent that the commissions exerted any independence, they still tried to tell promoters who could bleed and how much, and they moderated bait-and-switch promotional tactics and other consumer ripoffs. Most importantly, they charged gate taxes to sustain their system of pointless nagging.

Now, we all know how excessive regulation and taxation can retard the Connecticut job-creation machine that was the dream of Vince and Linda McMahon. So they also went to war against athletic commissions, and they won that one, too. In the process, they cheerfully acknowledged that pro wrestling was exactly what it was. In carny lingo, they “broke kayfabe.” The other carnies thought this would kill business. Of course, business got bigger than ever.

The die was cast as soon as The New York Times ran a front-page story in 1989 “revealing” that WWF said its matches were fixed. Even so, it took serious lobbying money to dismantle the state-by-state network of political groupies and wrestling hangers-on who stocked the commissions. In Pennsylvania, where the McMahons’ most trusted lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, was a partner at the law firm then called Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, a young associate with far-reaching ambition, Rick Santorum, was detailed to head the effort.

Government got off the backs of these sterling small-business entrepreneurs. Over the next generation, the result was that hundreds of their “independent contractors” died needlessly trying to prove that while what they did may have looked fake, there was nothing phony when their own health and well being were on the line.

In 1999 those twin breakout Connecticut business titans, Martha Stewart and Vince McMahon, launched public stock offerings for their companies the same week. Can you guess which one landed behind bars?

In her latest round of TV commercials for her Senate campaign, Linda McMahon assures one and all that while what she has done in all those embarrassing YouTube clips of WWE television isn’t real, “our problems are.”

Linda is right about that. In fact, she’s dead right.

Next: “The (Thwak!) Deregulation of (Thump!) Pro Wrestling” – my 1988 article for The Washington Monthly, which became Chapter 3 of my book Wrestling Babylon.


Irv Muchnick

Pro Wrestling Torch Mentions Dr. Joseph Maroon Issue

I believe James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch is the first reporter outside this blog to mention my efforts to get everyone to connect World Wrestling Entertainment medical director Joseph Maroon to the heavily criticized National Football League concussion policy committee, of which he is no longer a guiding light.

See “Brain Institute releases findings on deceased NFL player directly affecting pro wrestling,” http://pwtorch.com/artman2/publish/Other_News_4/article_42218.shtml.

Irv Muchnick

Brain Injuries in Linda McMahon’s WWE and the NFL – Where Sports and ‘Sports Entertainment’ Overlap

Drs. Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University are announcing today that their studies of National Football League player Chris Henry – who died last year at age 26 under bizarre circumstances – show he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. They have said that World Wrestling Entertainment performer Chris Benoit  (among a growing list of other pro wrestlers and football players) suffered from CTE when he committed double murder/suicide in 2007.

The Associated Press preview of the Bailes-Omalu announcement is at http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=AnxNSECybgIXseZ9insQJz85nYcB?slug=ap-bengals-henry.

As Linda McMahon runs for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut after amassing a fortune co-founding and operating WWE, remember this: The 2008 hire of WWE medical director Joseph Maroon, prompted by the Benoit tragedy, was based largely on Maroon’s reputation as an NFL neurologist and concussion expert. Now the NFL has overhauled its brain-injury policy team after Congressional hearings and media reports exposed serious lapses in the work there. Yet Maroon remains at WWE.

Moreover, WWE and Maroon have misled the public about their access to the West Virginia doctors’ postmortem studies of Benoit’s damaged brain.

Instead of deconstructing Linda McMahon TV commercials the way Pauline Kael analyzed Francis Ford Coppola, what if political reporters undertook a toothful examination of how the queen of fake-real-fake-real made her centimillions?

Irv Muchnick

My Take on Fedor’s Loss and ‘Mixed Martial Arts Randomness’

“No-Longer Invincible Fedor Latest Victim of Mixed Martial Arts Randomness”

by Irvin Muchnick

Beyond Chron

http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/No_Longer_Invincible_Fedor_Latest_Victim_of_Mixed_Martial_Arts_Randomness_8267.html

Background on Martha Hart’s Suit Against Linda McMahon and WWE

Linda McMahon, the well-heeled Senate candidate, and Martha Hart, the resourcefully litigious widow of a performer in Vince and Linda McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, had a tit-for-tat Sunday. On Face the State on WFSB-TV, Linda tried to debunk the lawsuit over the exploitation of the late Owen Hart’s likeness in a new DVD. In a statement issued by her Hill & Knowlton public relations agency, Martha fired back.

I encourage those of you following this dispute to get the full and unspun story. One of the best resources for this is the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Publisher Dave Meltzer gave me permission to reproduce this extended quote from his current issue:

The much-publicized lawsuit filed on 6/22 by Martha Hart against World Wrestling Entertainment, Vince and Linda McMahon, is really a combination of two things.

The first is an attempt to get WWE to no longer use any footage of Owen Hart, whether it be on television or future DVD releases, and have no links between him with the company. The move would make it impossible to induct him into the Hall of Fame as Martha Hart is claiming that the charity in his name, the Owen Hart Foundation, which started with the money Martha Hart received in her wrongful death lawsuit, feels any association of the name Owen Hart with WWE is a negative they don’t wish. I’m not sure what grounds they would have to keep the WWE from airing the footage, but clearly that is the goal of the suit. No performer in history has attempted or been able to get their footage eliminated from WWE archival DVDs and television offerings. The only examples of things changing are a lot of musical edits due to questions on rights, some changing of ring announcer voices due to a legal issue, eliminations of as much as humanly possible related to Chris Benoit–a company directive based on the taste issue, and as much as possible, eliminating the voice track of Jesse Ventura because he won a lawsuit that granted him higher than usual royalty payment on anything his voice appears on.

The other aspect of the lawsuit is she is asking for royalties based on a number of DVDs that Owen’s matches have appeared in, some of which he is on the cover, that the estate she claimed never received. She claimed it was the marketing of the new Hart Family DVD, with Owen on the cover, and heavily featured, that she was not told of in advance, which prompted her actions. What makes this strange is there would be no need to file such a lawsuit, because WWE pays royalties to people, including those no longer with the company, those who have sued the company, and those with acrimonious relationships with the company. I can’t imagine simply contacting the company, getting an accounting of DVDs that Owen Hart appeared in, that they wouldn’t get such a royalty check.

Then again, one has to question why, if her claims are true, she hasn’t gotten such a check for 11 years. Her whereabouts were not unknown. Owen Hart was far from a minor figure in wrestling history. She is a very public figure in Calgary. If it is an administrative oversight, it was a beyond sloppy one to involve someone who has a history of winning legal action against the company, an intense hatred of the company for very plausible reasons and has the money and perseverance to fight. Regardless of the merits of the first part of the lawsuit, it boggles my mind that somebody’s heads shouldn’t roll if there is truth to the second part of the allegation.

*****

Meanwhile, the larger backstory of the last week of the Linda McMahon campaign has been her reenergized media buys around the theme that while her business was fake, her grasp of public policy, as manifested by that experience, is real.

With what amounts to a revealing immaturity at this stage of the electoral proceedings, bloggers at both The Washington Post and TV Guide used the latest McMahon commercial an an excuse to yuk it up again.

This particular piece of McMahon family prestidigitation is an extension of a tale now in its fourth decade of retelling. Tomorrow I’ll go over it one more time and try to explain it so that everyone can understand — including those continuing to cling to the illusion that either wrestling or politics has a direct relationship to reality.

Journalists covering the boulevard-wide intersection of Connecticut Campaign 2010 and American kitsch need to understand that the McMahons let wrestling fans in on the  joke a long time ago; that they had a specific interest in doing so; and that the crutch of this cliche makes people who take themselves seriously look dumber, not smarter.

Irv Muchnick