Image: Oliver Lee Bateman

How a High-Profile Tragedy Helped WWE Think Differently About Brain Injuries

WWE taken a number of steps in the past decade to prevent injuries to its athletes, but a new lawsuit has reignited debate about the inherent danger of the profession.

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Jul 27 2016, 11:00am

Image: Oliver Lee Bateman

Much like other contact sport athletes, professional wrestlers receive adulation for their toughness. Abdullah the Butcher was renowned for his ability to bleed in the ring. "Dynamite Kid" Tom Billington tried to make his moves look as realistic as possible, even if that meant taking the hard bumps that came with them. And Chris Benoit, once regarded as the consummate technical wrestler of his era, always took his chair shots head-on and at full force.

Unfortunately, such practices are rarely compatible with long-term health and wellness. And things did not turn out well for the trio mentioned here: Tom Billington is confined to a wheelchair, Abdullah the Butcher may have ended up infecting dozens of wrestlers with hepatitis, and Benoit committed suicide in June 2007 after murdering his wife and son. Undoubtedly with these examples and many others in mind, the WWE, the world's largest professional wrestling federation and now the defendant in a high-profile concussion-related lawsuit, began taking significant steps in the mid-2000s to limit collateral damage to its wrestlers.

The WWE's actions in this regard are worth noting, given that one of the chief arguments in attorney Konstantine Kyros' complaint is that the promotion "recklessly endangered" its superstars by exposing them to unsafe working conditions. While many of the athletes named in the complaint competed during a much less safe period in the federation's history, the WWE has changed a great deal since it introduced a more comprehensive drug-testing and wellness policy in 2006.

That policy, amended several times since then, has led to over fifty suspensions for failed drug tests, with current megastar-in-the-making Roman Reigns its latest casualty. Although several wrestlers have received "therapeutic use exemptions" because they receive approved prescriptions from a supervising physician, the testing program itself is among the strictest in professional sports. For a company that endured a federal investigation into steroid abuse distribution during the 1990s, this represents a major advance.

The WWE banned blood in its matches after a gory encounter between Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho at the 2008 Great American Bash, and it expanded its wellness policy to bar "folding metal chair strikes to the head" in 2010 as the company attempted to decrease the risk of traumatic head injuries. Many reasons were given for this shift in a decidedly "PG" direction, most notably former CEO Linda McMahon's entry into national Republican politics, but increasing awareness of the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the circumstances of Benoit's derangement and death likely played a role (tests revealed that his battered brain showed indications of CTE). Putting such speculation aside, the WWE has repeatedly stated that the only reason it made these changes was to improve current working conditions for their wrestlers—which are, it bears noting, a far cry better than the extremely unsafe in-ring environment of a rival promotion like TNA.

"There was once a storytelling purpose to the use of blood in, say, a cage match, but it's simply not worth the cost to the workers," explained attorney and wrestling critic Jim Jividen. "With chair shots, there was much less utility. Obviously, fans of any sport like hitting, as evidenced by cheers for the knockout shots of opposing wide receivers that were previously allowed by the NFL, or boos today when a personal foul is assessed for a late him on the quarterback."

Jividen views the WWE's reforms as sensible in a changing legal environment. "I'm risk averse, and I can't see why a corporation would want to open itself up to weird science, angry juries, and sympathetic plaintiffs. Another issue for the WWE to address, I believe, involves the continued use of high-angle suplexes by key stars like Brock Lesnar, given the toll they presumably take on the head. As for whether their wellness program changes help or hurt them in the lawsuit, that's extremely complicated—I can see it both ways, though the NFL settlement seems important here."

However, the various changes to worker health policies and practices do raise concerns about another part of Kyros' lawsuit: his challenge to the continued classification of wrestlers as independent contractors rather than employees. "In theory, WWE shouldn't be able to exercise this level of control over wrestlers, given their status as independent contractors," Jividen added.

At least for the moment, this latest round of litigation is one reality-based storyline the McMahons and WWE cannot totally control.