Knocking Heads Together: WWE Is the Next Frontier of Sports Concussion Reform

How grimly appropriate that Brett Favre, this year’s poster boy for pro football angst both on and off the field, would be one of the two players sustaining what were delicately termed “head injuries” in last night’s nationally televised game. After the Chicago Bears-Minnesota Vikings matchup got moved to an outdoor stadium with a rock-hard surface while the weather-punctured roof of the Minneapolis Metrodome awaits repair, the sour joke around the National Football League had been that an 80 percent chance of snow was exceeded only by a 90 percent chance of concussions.

But at least the NFL is vaguely grounded in reality. Stung by critical Congressional hearings last year, Roger Goodell’s unstoppable brand lurches toward solutions – even if a straight line may never exist between a violent contact sport and competitive civility.

From where I sit, the new regime of fines and suspensions for difficult-to-define headhunters has done more good than harm. Moreover, earlier this year the league gave $1 million to Boston University for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy research. And NFL Charities just announced nearly a million more for groups studying both youth concussions and the phenomenon of dementia in former players.

Contrast this NFL reality check with the persistent culture of denial at World Wrestling Entertainment. Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon, a long-time NFL brain-trauma consultant, serves as WWE’s medical director, a post created in 2008 in an expansion of the company’s drug-testing procedures and talent “wellness policy.”

Despite the fact that pro wrestling, in contrast with football, is choreographed, the former’s participants suffer an early death rate magnitudes higher. Yet not even the 2007 murder-suicide of WWE star Chris Benoit could get Congress off the schneid on investigations of wrestling, whose global reach and mega-profits are the nearly exclusive province of one company and one family: the McMahons of Connecticut.

This year former WWE chief executive Linda McMahon, wife of potentate Vince McMahon, even poured $50 million of their nearly billion-dollar fortune into an embarrassingly unsuccessful run for a Senate seat. (Not embarrassing enough, however, for Linda to refrain from immediate noise about a run for the state’s other Senate seat in 2012.)

Into the teeth of this wealth and propaganda machine, Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal had a messy passage to election. Victory was ultimately secured, in significant measure, by the spotlight shone on WWE’s morbid occupational health and safety record.

Now Blumenthal is obliged to help clean up junk entertainment’s industrial death mill. A good place for the 112th Congress to start would be resumption of the post-Benoit investigation undertaken by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The committee’s chairman at the time, Congressman Henry Waxman, perplexingly stopped short of public hearings; he probably either bent to the will of WWE’s well-greased lobbyists.or simply calculated that the public was more enthralled by the human growth hormone injection marks on the derriere of baseball’s Roger Clemens.

Whatever the source, WWE is clearly nervous. Last week lawyer Jerry McDevitt sent me  a rambling 13-page letter, with more than a hundred pages of exhibits, accusing me of defamation as well as, perhaps, mopery and gawkery. (See “New Threats From WWE Lawyer Jerry McDevitt,” https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/new-threats-from-wwe-lawyer-jerry-mcdevitt/.)

The most remarkable aspect of McDevitt’s serial saber-rattling, three and a half years after the Benoit tragedy, is that WWE still doesn’t accept Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy as a clear and present danger. McDevitt directs most of his ire at Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist whose study of Benoit’s postmortem brain tissue helped put CTE on the map.

In the WWE mouthpiece’s master innuendo, Omalu and his West Virginia Brain Injury Research Institute colleague, Dr. Julian Bailes, have failed to establish to WWE’s satisfaction that the Benoit study tissue samples were from Benoit’s brain. At the appropriate time, a straightforward DNA test will easily confirm the chain of custody.

Bailes and Omalu used to work with Boston’s Sports Legacy Institute, which was started by a WWE performer, Harvard grad Chris Nowinski, who had been forced to retire due to many concussions. In his letter to me, McDevitt insinuates that Omalu’s falling out with the Boston group was based on questions by Dr. Robert Cantu and other researchers there about the integrity of Omalu’s work.

Nonsense. The Boston-West Virginia rivalry has everything to do with egos and competition for grants and attention – there is no serious dispute among the scientific experts as to the core conclusion that CTE is a discrete pathology. Dr. Cantu himself spoke at Nowinski’s 2007 press conference announcing Omalu’s Benoit findings; Cantu called the wrestler’s brain tissue damage some of the worst he had ever seen.

As for this blog, McDevitt’s big beef is that I reported a year ago this month that WWE lied to ESPN in a story about the brain study of a second dead wrestler, Andrew “Test” Martin. Unlike Benoit, Martin – who succumbed to a prescription pill addiction at 33 – did not commit homicide or suicide, but he, too, was found to have CTE. WWE glibly told the ESPN reporter that it had never been given access to the Benoit research. Left untold was that in 2008 medical director Maroon had accepted an invitation to the West Virginia lab, where Drs. Bailes and Omalu showed him the Benoit slides.

As the story continues to unfold, Maroon could find his association with the WWE deny-all crowd imperiling his reputation and legacy. To Maroon’s credit, his team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has helped develop neurological baseline testing and new athletic concussion prevention and treatment protocols. To Maroon’s discredit, he came off poorly at the House Judiciary Committee’s NFL concussion hearings, which rocketed the issue into public consciousness.

And in addition to enabling WWE’s lie to ESPN, Maroon told a Connecticut newspaper during the Linda McMahon for Senate campaign, “We have no talent now on steroids” – a quote so wildly at variance with the truth that the leading wrestling journalist, Dave Meltzer, called it “mind-boggling.” In a poll of Meltzer’s readers at the Wrestling Observer website, 76 percent of the respondents selected “dishonest” as a description of this statement.

Moving forward, will Maroon be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Irv Muchnick

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