(See also yesterday’s post, “Sports Concussion Scandal Ground Zero: NFL and WWE Doc Joseph Maroon’s Hype Article in ‘Neurosurgery’ on Riddell Football Helmets.”)
The Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the Super Bowl. Their team neurosurgeon for more than two decades, Joseph Maroon – also an important member of the National Football League’s concussion policy committee – has been medical director of World Wrestling Entertainment for almost three years. Now Maroon is at the center of a Federal Trade Commission investigation of inflated safety claims by Riddell, official helmet supplier of the NFL.
Here is a chronology of Dr. Maroon’s involvement with WWE.
In June 2007, WWE star Chris Benoit, 40, murdered his wife, 43, and their 7-year-old son before killing himself. Chris and Nancy Benoit were approximately the ninth and tenth of approximately 21 wrestlers and on-screen personalities who died before their 50th birthdays that year – the peak year of a generation-long industry pandemic with at least some relation to occupational health and safety standards.
Retired WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski – who had written a book, Head Games, about his own bout with long-term brain trauma – launched the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, which advocates reforms and facilitates studies of brains of dead athletes. An examination of Chris Benoit’s brain by pioneer researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu revealed evidence of the phenomenon known as Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy.
On November 7, 2007, Linda McMahon, then chief executive of WWE, told CNN, “These studies, you know, have not been — they’ve not been proven, if you will.”
Vince McMahon, WWE’s chairman, added, “Haven’t been even critiqued by the other members of the scientific community…. And the only thing we’ve done really is from a conservative standpoint is just don’t use chairs to the head.”
On December 14, 2007, the McMahons’ daughter, company vice president Stephanie McMahon Levesque, was asked by Congressional investigators, “Are you aware of any incident where a wrestler in a match received a concussion?” She responded, “No.”
SPRING 2008: MAROON AND UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH MEDICAL CENTER TEAM HIRED
Some time around March of 2008, Dr. Maroon was hired by WWE to oversee its “wellness policy.” The appointment did not appear to have been accompanied by a press release or website announcement, and was first reported by Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute.
Maroon installed his imPACT concussion-management system, which consists of baseline neurological testing and measured protocols for determining when an injured performer is ready to return to action. The system is patented and marketed by a company formed by Maroon and two other University of Pittsburgh Medical Center doctors.
WWE also hired several other UPMC clinicians, including Dr. Bryan Donohue to supervise talent cardiovascular screening and Dr. Vijay Bahl to assist in determination of claims of wrestlers that high testosterone levels on their drug tests were excused by therapeutic use exemptions. In addition, ringside doctors began accompanying wrestlers on WWE tours.
OCTOBER 1988: LANCE CADE HIT ON HEAD WITH CHAIR, FIRED
On October 6, 2008, wrestler Lance McNaught (“Lance Cade”) was hit squarely on the head, with apparent scripted calculation, on the WWE cable television show Raw.
Shortly thereafter, McNaught suffered a seizure on an airplane flight from a reaction to prescription painkillers.
On or around October 14, 2008, WWE released McNaught.
DECEMBER 2009: UMAGA DEATH; WWE LIE TO ESPN FOR ANDREW MARTIN BRAIN STUDY STORY
On December 4, 2009, wrestler Eddie Fatu (“Umaga”) died of a heart attack, caused by prescription drug toxicity, at 36. In 2007 Fatu had been suspended by WWE for violating a drug provision of the wellness policy. In June 2009 Fatu had been fired by WWE for refusing to go to drug rehabilitation. His autopsy would show that he weighed more than 400 pounds at the time of his death and had an enlarged heart.
Also that month, ESPN reported that Dr. Omalu had found signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy in the brain of former WWE performer Andrew Martin, who had died in March of a prescription drug overdose at age 33. (Martin had been released while rehabbing from fusion surgery on his neck.) WWE told ESPN that it was “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.” Omalu told me that WWE medical director Maroon had attended a meeting of doctors at the West Virginia Brain Injury Research Institute on October 1, 2008, at which the Benoit brain study specimens were shown. Later another attendee, Peter Davies, a professor of pathology and neuroscience at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, would tell me, “Maroon … ‘brokered’ the meeting.”
EARLY 2010: WWE BANS CHAIR SHOTS TO THE HEAD
WWE announced early in 2010 that it was prohibiting wrestlers from hitting each other on the head with chairs.
Jim Ross, a wrestling television announcer and executive, blogged, “Some asked if I thought this mandate was ‘politically motivated’ to which I emphatically say hell, no. It simply makes common sense and the overall health of the competitors has to be any companies [sic] utmost priority.”
JANUARY 2010: CHARLIE HAAS RELEASED WITH NECK INJURY
Around the same time as the chair-shot ban, WWE performer Charlie Haas injured his neck. His account is that an MRI by his own doctor in Texas revealed two herniated disks in his neck and advised him to consider spinal fusion surgery. According to Haas, Dr. Maroon dismissed this concern without personally examining Haas, who was released by the company shortly thereafter.
AUGUST 2010: LANCE CADE DEATH
On August 13, 2010, Lance McNaught died of heart failure at 29. Linda McMahon – by now the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut – said, “Who knows what causes people to have addictions and do what they do?”
OCTOBER 2010: DR. MAROON SAYS “NO TALENT NOW ON STEROIDS”
Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer labeled “mind-boggling” Dr. Maroon’s statement to the Hartford Courant that WWE had “no talent now on steroids.” In a poll at Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer website, 76 percent of the respondents said Maroon was “dishonest.”