[originally published on March 2 at http://www.f4wonline.com/content/view/19670/]
Irv Muchnick on football’s Dave Duerson, CTE consciousness, and what it means for wrestling
The other day I got an email from a friend who was following my coverage of the suicide of former National Football League player Dave Duerson. While the mainstream media proceed with predictable tearjerkers, I’ve been talking about this story’s elephant in the closet: the outrage that Duerson, who seems to be yet another case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was serving on a joint union-management panel making wrongheaded rulings on mental disability claims applications of other retired players and their families.
My friend didn’t get into all that. She simply wanted to know this: “So – is football your next big thing?”
My answer is that the CTE trail, wherever it leads, is more of the same big thing. The focus on pro football, rather than pro wrestling, is both good and bad. Good, because the former is at least nine times larger and more influential than the latter, and therefore an easier public-education sell.
But also potentially bad for two reasons. Bad because the NFL is so financially powerful and so engrained in our popular culture that defenders of the indefensible – a paradigm of slow and systematic death trickling down to thousands of youth sports programs across the country – could carry the day with a combination of inane libertarian arguments and profitable denial.
And bad because all this could allow World Wrestling Entertainment, itself a billion-dollar publicly traded company, to lurk back underneath the radar while its almost criminally negligent occupational health and safety lapses – starkly exposed during Linda McMahon’s failed 2010 Connecticut Senate run – go unaddressed.
Understand that my position here has nothing to do with which sport is “legit” and which “worked.” Wrestling is “worse” than football in one main respect: the spectacle is choreographed, and the promotion therefore has more control over what the performers do to others and themselves in the name of glory and riches. In addition, the doctors there who enable bad practices (like WWE medical director Joseph Maroon, also a Pittsburgh Steelers and NFL consultant who is now caught up in a federal investigation of the exaggerated safety claims of Riddell helmets, an official league supplier) are arguably more contemptible, though they would undoubtedly contend that their very presence does more good than harm.
As with steroid and painkiller abuse, working conditions, the flow and accounting of revenues, and other related issues, the intersection of football and wrestling leads to another thought, about the concept of a wrestlers’ talent union. Some wrestlers like to speak out on behalf of one, but always only after their voices are no longer powerful enough to make a difference. Bret Hart is the classic recent example.
But anyone examining the Dave Duerson scenario has to admit that a union itself might not be the answer anyway. Right now the National Football League Players Association is at an impasse with the league in collective bargaining over how to divide the industry’s $9 billion in annual revenues. Player safety is an afterthought. The Players Association leadership consistently, and perhaps accurately, concludes that the vast majority of its members want it that way. How else to explain the disgraceful foot-dragging on outreach to and appropriate compensation for the hundreds of mentally and financially disabled NFL alumni across the country – almost all of them ticking CTE time bombs waiting to happen?
Duerson put a bullet through his heart, and the treacly commentary is that this was a selfless gift to future CTE awareness. Well, maybe, but reining in the excesses of bread-and-circuses American sports will have no single-bullet solution. In the case of wrestling, greater government oversight is part of the answer. I say so not because wrestling is gross, or wrestlers are “role models,” or adult men and women aren’t entitled to make their own career choices (or, in the death-defying euphemism, “pursue their dreams”). It is because the rest of us have an interest in not picking up the tab for a gratuitous industrial body count, and in balancing our thirst for entertainment with deterrence against warped public-health values.
Today is, I believe, the first day in office for Glenn Marshall, Connecticut’s new commissioner of labor. Wrestling fans everywhere should look forward eagerly to the results of the Labor Department’s audit of WWE’s alleged abuse of independent contractor classification for its wrestlers. This is one important step in a long process of saving lives, families, and unconscionable societal costs.