Archive for November, 2010



Report: Ex-Wrestler Dean Malenko Recently Had Heart Attack

I have been told by a reliable source that in recent months ex-pro wrestler Dean Malenko, who now works for the World Wrestling Entertainment front office, suffered a heart attack.

Malenko (real name Dean Simon, age 50) was a very close friend of the two WWE wrestlers whose deaths most galvanized attention to the company’s occupational health and safety standards: Eddie Guerrero (who died of a heart attack in 2005 at age 38) and Chris Benoit (who committed double murder/suicide in 2007 at age 40).

Malenko was backstage at last night’s WWE Survivor Series pay-per-view in Miami. (He lives in Florida.) No mention was made to anyone of recent health problems.

WWE spokesman Robert Zimmerman has not responded as yet to my request for comment on this report.

 

Irv Muchnick

Connecticut Investigation of WWE Involves Unemployment Insurance Taxes

Connecticut Department of Labor spokesman Paul Oates told me today that any audit of World Wrestling Entertainment would be coming out of the department’s Unemployment Insurance Division, not its Wage and Workplace Standards Division.

Oates emailed:

“[A]t this time, I am unable to confirm or deny that there is or was a WWE audit undertaken by the UI Tax Division within this Agency. Section 31-254 of the Connecticut General Statute provides the following: ‘The administrator may require from any employer, whether or not otherwise subject to this chapter, any sworn or unsworn reports with respect to persons employed by him which are necessary for the effective administration of this chapter. Information thus obtained shall not be published or be open to public inspection, other than to public employees in the performance of their public duties, in any manner revealing the employee’s or the employer’s identity…. [Emphasis added]'”

There are two dimensions of independent contractor misclassification. One is  the way it can deprive governments of tax revenues. The other is the way it can deprive workers of benefits. My interpretation of the statement issued by the Department of Labor is that its investigation of WWE originated, or is now oriented, on the tax payment issue.

 

Irv Muchnick

Coverage in Britain’s Shortlist Magazine

This week’s issue of Shortlist, a widely circulated men’s magazine in Great Britain, has an important article by writer James McMahon (no relation to Vince and Linda, obviously), entitled “Is This the Most Dangerous Entertainment in the World?” The piece covers the Chris Benoit murder-suicide and the pandemic of deaths in the wrestling industry, and quotes both Michael Benoit (Chris’s father) and myself. You can view page images at http://magazine.shortlist.com/1Q4ce28f17225b2012.cde (go to pp. 54-56).

A photo on page 56 is miscaptioned. That is not Chris Benoit with Nancy. Someone thinks it may be Nancy’s first husband (before Chris and before wrestler Kevin Sullivan). Also, in criticism of the World Wrestling Entertainment wellness policy, I’m quoted as saying, in part, that “the men that make money for them don’t get tested.” What I believe I said is not that the top guys don’t get tested at all, but rather that enforcement of the results is erratic. The prime example is Randy Orton, who did not seem to have any consequences from landing on the Signature Pharmacy customer list, while every other WWE performer on the list got suspended.

All in all, Shortlist has made a valuable contribution to the journalism that will drive the next steps in pro wrestling regulation.

Irv Muchnick

‘Concussion Issue Reaches Critical Mass in American Culture and Politics’ (full text)

[originally published at Beyond Chron, November 12, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Concussion_Issue_Reaches_Critical_Mass_in_American_Culture_and_Politics_8668.html]

by Irvin Muchnick

Have you seen the new TV commercial from Toyota about concussions in football? The car company brags that its research on crash safety has been turned over to the grand pooh-bahs of sports, where it now allow moms to watch their precious sons block and tackle on the gridiron with renewed confidence that the harm to them will be minimized.

When Madison Avenue jumps on the bandwagon, you know the parade is already well down the road. The year 2011 will be the one in which the American public and government confront the growing evidence of the public-health toll of violent collisions in sports and sports entertainment, and do something substantial about it. Perhaps not enough to satisfy the safety-first crowd and too much for the taste of consumers of our gladiatorial, bread-and-circuses popular culture – but something.

And to think, it’s all because of pro wrestling. In June 2007 a former World Wrestling Entertainment performer named Chris Nowinski started Boston’s Sports Legacy Institute, dedicated to study and reform of concussion prevention and management. Nowinski himself, a Harvard guy who had wrestled with an Ivy League snob gimmick, was forced to retire from the ring due to brain trauma, and then wrote a book about the phenomenon.

The same month, in one of the year’s most sensational crime stories, WWE’s Chris Benoit murdered his wife and their son, before committing suicide, in Georgia. Nowinski asked Benoit’s father, Michael Benoit, for brain tissue that could be studied by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist (and now chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, California).

Mike Benoit was a grieving father grasping for answers to the unfathomable. This time the grieving father struck paydirt. Omalu found that Chris Benoit had the disease the doctor was calling “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (and that Omalu’s co-director at the West Virginia Brain Research, Dr. Julian Bailes, would like to rename “Mike Webster’s Disease,” after the Steelers’ Hall of Fame center who, like many other former football players, spiraled into mental illness, homelessness, and early death, with CTE as a major or primary factor).

In 2009 another WWE guy died, at 33, from a prescription drug overdose, and Andrew Martin’s post-mortem brain tests showed that he, too, had CTE. Benoit and Martin are just two of the scores of young wrestling deaths in the last generation, but the only ones to date whose brains have been studied.

Today the Sports Legacy Institute’s research affiliates are overflowing with a backlog of donated brains of dead athletes. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve been reading the stories. And it’s almost impossible to watch a National Football League or National Hockey League game these days without hearing references to concussions and controversies over suspensions and fines under evolving rules to eliminate dangerous head shots.

The NFL faces serious political and commercial pressure to civilize its inherently brutal game – pressure that will only intensify if a labor dispute delays or cancels the 2011 season. On the legislative front, the House Judiciary Committee last year conducted highly critical hearings on the league’s concussion studies and management. One of the point people for that criticism, Pittsburgh Steelers neurologist and NFL concussion policy committee member Dr. Joseph Maroon, is also the medical director of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Meanwhile, Congressional investigations of pro wrestling, which began but stalled after the Benoit murder-suicide, should be revived following the failed $50 million self-funded Senate campaign of Linda McMahon, the wife of WWE honcho Vince McMahon, who had served as this billion-dollar publicly traded corporation’s chief executive officer. The state of Connecticut, where WWE is headquartered, is already auditing the company’s controversial classification of its performers as “independent contractors” who do not receive employee health, vacation, or pension benefits, and who sign a talent contract releasing WWE of liability even in the event of injury or death caused by the promotion’s own negligence.

When Linda McMahon’s opponent, Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal (the state’s long-time attorney general), takes office in January, he will have a moral obligation to lead on an issue that contributed significantly to his election. As Blumenthal pointed out in one of his debates with McMahon, seven wrestlers with WWE connections died just during the year-plus of her campaign. One of them, 29-year-old Lance Cade, had fatal “heart failure” two years after being savagely beaten down with a steel chair on the cable television show Raw – almost certainly contributing to his painkiller addiction and possibly causing brain damage.

The national cultural and political stars have begun to align. Listen up, everyone, and circle “concussions” and “WWE investigations” in your Google searches and Twitter hashtags. The future is now.

Beyond Chron contributor Irvin Muchnick is author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death. Blog: https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com. Twitter: @irvmuch.

Muchnick’s Capitol Report

Blumenthal brings Better Business Bureau to its knees …

Blumenthal to ‘actively’ keep the heat on Google …

Blumenthal to follow through on investigations of death and occupational safety standards in the pro wrestling industry …

OK, so only the first two are current headlines in the redoubtable Tom Dudchik’s Capitol Report, http://ctcapitolreport.com.

But the third, as Hamlet would say, “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Irv Muchnick

Linda McMahon’s Second Act

Linda McMahon, losing Senate candidate in a near-landslide, is crawling out of the woodwork a bit faster than expected. That’s like putting the ball on a tee for an experienced and witty pundit like Rick Green, columnist and blogger for the Hartford Courant. See “Linda in 2012? Are You Paying Any Attention At All?”, http://blogs.courant.com/rick_green/2010/11/linda-in-2012-are-you-paying-a.html.

Yo, brother Rick – there’s a government story out there as well as a politics story, and your sources in Connecticut are a lot better than mine. Now that you’ve written a post (probably in your sleep) reminding everyone that there is indeed another major election in 2012 – since, you know, we tend to have these things approximately every two years in this country – how about applying your talent to writing about the state investigation of independent contractor abuse at Linda McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment?

 

Irv Muchnick

Connecticut: No Complaint Paper Trail in WWE Independent Contractor Investigation

This morning I got an email from Heidi Lane, principal attorney in the Office of Program Policy at the Connecticut Department of Labor. Lane was responding to the public records request I had sent to Acting Labor Commissioner Linda Agnew.

Lane wrote: “A search of the records of the CT Department of Labor (I am unable to speak for other state agencies) reveals that no DOL-83 has been filed concerning World Wrestling Entertainment, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., WWE or any other name variation relating to this company.”

Next week I will endeavor to confirm that the same is true of the other four offices with jurisdiction over misclassification investigations: Office of the Attorney General, Office of the State’s Attorney, Department of Revenue Services, and Workers’ Compensation Commission. For good measure, I’ll throw in the Joint Enforcement Commission on Employee Misclassification, which I believe is only advisory.

Also next week, I’ll be reporting further on the status of this matter, with the goal of preventing it from dribbling off into vaporware, like the abruptly dropped 2007 investigation by Congressman Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In my view, Attorney General (and now Senator-elect) Richard Blumenthal has a special obligation to explain publicly where this investigation originated and where it is going. After all, earlier this year, when the enabling state legislation on misclassification was passed, Blumenthal was front and center. His March 17 press release announced a “crackdown” on classification abuse. To be clear, I think that was a good thing.

During the general election campaign against Linda McMahon, former CEO of WWE, Blumenthal suggested that the state audit of WWE (which had been brought to light by Hearst reporter Brian Lockhart) was being handled by the Labor Department. Blumenthal said he was not involved, and added – in what I took as more of a rhetorical dig against McMahon than a representation of the investigation’s status – that his office had jurisdiction only over “civil,” not “criminal,” matters.

Before proceeding to next week’s round of reporting, I have one quick observation on the apparent absence of DOL-83 referral forms in the Connecticut WWE investigation. This would mean that, at least so far, no wrestler has come forward with a complaint. But there’s no reason why wrestlers who have worked for the McMahons can’t act now and add their submissions to the WWE Labor Department investigative file. I’m talking about current wrestlers, if any of them have the guts to do something to help reform and improve their industry. And I’m talking about former WWE performers, such as Scott Levy (“Raven”) and Mike Sanders, two of the three plaintiffs in a 2008 federal lawsuit on the independent contractor issue that got thrown out on technicalities.

I wish I could exhort the third plaintiff, Chris Klucsarits (“Chris Kanyon”), to step up and make his voice heard, too. Unfortunately, Chris is prematurely dead – like too many pro wrestlers, whose misclassification as independent contractors  is the opening wedge in scrutiny of this industry’s horrific occupational health and safety standards.

Irv Muchnick


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