“Who knows what causes people to have addictions and do what they do?”
With that rhetorical question, near-billionaire wrestling mogul and U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon has attempted to reduce to idle existential musing the scrutiny of the occupational health and safety standards of her mega-profitable, publicly traded, multinational marketing firm, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.
All current signs are that she will succeed. For example, in the wake of the new report questioning if baseball icon Lou Gehrig actually was killed by the symptoms of multiple-concussion syndrome, rather than by the degenerative neurological disease named for him, there is a spate of articles on how athletes even in this sport, with its comparatively infrequent collisions, risk chronic brain injury. (See “The lasting impact of concussions like Morneau’s,” http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=jp-concussions081710.) Not one of these stories seems to give any credit to the fact that the underlying medical research was catalyzed by a study of the brain of dead pro wrestler Chris Benoit, or to look critically at the humanity-free cost-benefit calculus behind WWE’s lax concussion management and overall decadent death mill.
When I read Linda McMahon’s quote last night, I thought about my conversation earlier yesterday with former WWE performer Charlie Haas, who now wrestles for another group called Ring of Honor. Haas gave me permission to share the story of his neck injury and subsequent release by WWE six months ago, but the interpretations herein are my own. Charlie is the kind of guy who doesn’t get quoted in stories about the “racy” WWE because he’s just a regular well-spoken person, lacking the verbal hocus-pocus of a carny.
Haas also, in his thirties, is thinking intelligently about what to do with the rest of his life, and he knows that complaining about his ring injuries doesn’t fit the program. He doesn’t want to cheat his present employer or its fans; and if he ever again seeks employment outside the wrestling industry, he knows that the single most prominent line item on his resume will still always read “sports entertainer, WWE.”
But above all – and in contrast with Linda McMahon’s slur of her own hired help as a population riddled with addicts – Charlie Haas is no Mickey Rourke from The Wrestler.
Like Chris Nowinski (the ex-WWE performer who retired due to concussion syndrome and now leads an organization, the Sports Legacy Institute, spearheading research and reforms), Haas is a college graduate. Nowinski went to Harvard. Haas went to Seton Hall on an amateur wrestling scholarship, and was a two-time champion of the Big East Conference before earning a degree in economics and becoming a stockbroker at Goldman Sachs. He broke into pro wrestling in 1996.
In 2001 Charlie’s brother and tag-team partner, Russ Haas, died suddenly of a heart attack caused by a congenital condition. Russ’s is one of the “five” deaths of contemporaneously contracted wrestlers that WWE acknowledges, and all the evidence is that this one was truly a fluke, not a death attributable to drugs or working conditions.
In January of this year, Charlie Haas himself suffered a serious neck injury in WWE during a match with Drew McIntyre. As a lifelong amateur and pro, Haas knew all about neck injuries, but this one was different. He got an MRI, which showed “mild to moderate” herniation of two disks, the C-6 and the T-1. He was told to undergo physical therapy and, if that didn’t work, to consider major spinal fusion surgery.
Haas shipped the MRI images from his Dallas home to the Pittsburgh clinic of Dr. Joseph Maroon, WWE’s resident neurologist and medical director (who also works for the Pittsburgh Steelers and serves on the National Football League’s now-discredited concussion policy committee).
In his only remark to me that could be termed directly critical of WWE, Haas said, “Maroon told me, ‘You had a stinger [a common and casual neck nerve irritation]. You’re good to go.’ And I’m thinking, ‘How can he make that diagnosis from Pittsburgh?’”
Haas had physical therapy but it didn’t take. On February 26, 2010, WWE cut him. He is a realist: he knows that he was always typecast as a “utility wrestler,’”technically skilled and able to make the top guys look good and to teach the younger guys how to work. As a non-main eventer, he was prone to release.
But I have to add – even if Haas won’t point this out on his own behalf – that WWE over the years, depending on the whim of the moment, has been known to underwrite spinal fusion surgery for stars large and small, from Chris Benoit to Hardcore Holly to Steve Austin to Andrew “Test” Martin. (The latter had the distinction of being the first company performer to be released while he was recuperating from such a procedure. After he died last year of a prescription drug overdose, his brain was studied and found, like Benoit’s, to have the buildups of tau proteins associated with the condition now being called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”)
Charlie Haas is no addict. Should he develop a problem later, months or years after doing his part to make Linda McMahon a wealthy woman and a perverse political phenom in this perverse political year, then I don’t think the right question will be “What causes people to have addictions and do what they do?”
I think the right question will be, “How do callous profiteers who treat their valuable employees like throwaway ‘independent contractors’ with no protections get away with it?”