WWE Rehab Program: Evidence of Workplace Injuries Linked to Drug Abuse and Overdose Deaths?

The Boston Globe ran an interesting front-page story last week (August 9, 2018) about a Massachusetts Public Health Department Report linking overdose deaths to the conditions faced by construction workers. The article highlights that risk factors in drug abuse can be studied and conclusions reached about the likely causes. These risk factors are a major issue in the wrestling community and in the claims made by the wrestlers in the pending lawsuit against the WWE.

The article, “Opioid Deaths tied to workplace injuries: Need to Stay on job while hurt cited in Mass. Report” states: “The Report… paints a disturbing picture of workers hurt on the job, taking addictive painkillers, and needing those painkillers to keep working at jobs they would otherwise lose. “

“A lack of job security and sick pay- often the case in high-injury occupations- were also factors linked to higher rates of overdose deaths, the study found.”

In other words injured workers without adequate treatment and rest may self medicate in order to continue working.

As anyone who has worked with professional wrestlers knows this is a prime concern expressed in the community for years. Nearly every professional wrestler will tell anyone willing to listen that wrestling promotions including the WWE- had inadequate policies about taking time off for injuries, enforced unwritten rules about being tough and performing through pain. Many wrestlers would turn to drugs and alcohol to manage their pain, endure the road schedule and would help them wrestle even while hurt.

This exploitative and dangerous practice (of allowing wrestlers to perform injured) fostered through various means is one of the workplace structural issues addressed in the pending lawsuit against the WWE.

The Wrestlers Claims:

For example the wrestlers like Plaintiff Bryan Clark AKA Adam Bomb states:
“Because of the work schedule my body had no time to heal, also while on the road I needed to stay in shape, eat right, and train in the gym, which was difficult.  I started getting injuries from the constant wear and tear on my body. The WWE schedule was called “the grind,” it was almost nonstop.”

Plaintiff Anthony Norris AKA Ahmad Johnson states:
“Most of the time I worked through being hurt or injured, but the fact that I had so many major injuries led to me being classified as “injury prone.” This designation he believed was meant to discourage him and other wrestlers from taking time to properly treat and recuperate from injuries.”

Plaintiff Bill Edie AKA Ax states:
“After an injury the referee or trainer might throw you a cold towel, you were expected to carry on with injuries, perform every day, you had to be ready to move on to the next city. The office did not give a damn if you were hurt unless it was going to impact the actual show.”

Statements like those above, that WWE ran an unsafe workplace and schedule are expressed in graphic personal experience by virtually every wrestler in the lawsuit. The frequency of the reports makes it hard to discount them or pretend that these are simply tall tales of disgruntled wrestlers (which is essentially WWE’s legal and factual position to the extent they bother to address these claims).

During Linda McMahon’s unsuccessful senate run in 2010 Lance Cade’s death became an issue, with his father telling the media the same story:

“His son had been injured on the job, requiring surgery on a shoulder last year and receiving a prescription for a knee injury in 2004. The younger McNaught [Cade] worked his way though pain as much as he could, his father said, because he and the other wrestlers were wary of taking time off to heal, believing that they would be quickly passed over in favor of other talent, and would have to begin the long, slow climb of their careers all over again.”

Interestingly, Chris Nowinski (before his Foundation received Millions in funding from WWE) sharply criticized the WWE over Lance Cade’s death saying: “They have an environment where it’s absolutely unsafe to work in that ring. They have no oversight into what actually happens in the ring, and “Luckily they have no media following them, so they’ve been able to get away with it. …” The WWE derided his qualifications and stated Nowinski’s comments that “WWE talent perform in matches 200 days a year in not factual.”

WWE Drug and Alcohol Rehab

In any event the WWE knows the truth about the likely causes of drug and alcohol abuse and has been non-publicly collecting the data about the high drug and alcohol abuse rates amongst pro wrestlers for over ten years through its internal alcohol and drug rehabilitation program.

The program evidences the extent that the WWE tracks former talent, it must maintain internal records on each wrestlers whereabouts (many move around quite a bit) and must constantly keep up with their changing addresses and even maintain contact with performers from the 1980s like Omar Mijares – indeed nearly all of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that the WWE mails them the offers each year.

The WWE’s own website stated it mailed 707 letters in 2014 and that roughly 10% of those that received the letter availed themselves of the offered programs. This alone is a sobering statistic and a rare public disclosure that standing alone invites serious scrutiny. Ten percent of WWE talent went to drug rehab?!? No one is looking at this? This level of detail appears to have been removed from the WWE’s website after the disclosure on the website came up in a very prominent way in the lawsuit. [if it is still online, please let us know]

The program was/is managed by WWE employees such as Ann Russo-Gordon and Robert Killar, who with an undisclosed amount of WWE resources, attempt to advise and help dozens of the wrestlers struggling with drug and alcohol (and likely CTE). Mr. Killar’s resume states that he has experience with the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, so presumably he would be able to advise WWE about the likely causes of the tidal wave of abuse in the ranks of WWE talent.

Based on the WWE wrestlers claims made in the lawsuit (and the frequency with which they contact their lawyers), the call volume to the WWE office from struggling wrestlers must be quite high. Plaintiff’s counsel have been stonewalled (to date) from obtaining this information in the lawsuit.

The Letters, often sent by Vince McMahon himself state:

“Over the last ten years, an inordinate number of wrestlers have passed away. Some of those deaths may in part have been caused by drugs and alcohol. In an effort to prevent such tragedies in the future, the WWE is willing to pay for drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation at a certified treatment chosen by WWE for any performer with a prior WWE booking contract who may need this service.”

When asked in 2007 at the Oversight and Government Reform hearings what prompted the letter? McMahon Answered:

“Two words: public relations. That’s it. I do not feel any sense of responsibility for anyone of whatever their age is who has passed along and has bad habits and overdoses for drugs. Sorry, I don’t feel any responsibility for that. Nonetheless, that’s why we’re [sending the letter]. It is a magnanimous gesture.”

The flippant statement by Mr. McMahon shows not only indifference, but a total lack of awareness that the WWE’s employment practices, workplace structure, OSHA violations, internal culture and legal violations would eventually give rise to the many hundreds of millions in dollars in potential legal liabilities that he and the WWE are now currently facing in the Federal Courts.

The pending lawsuit against the WWE seeks access to this information in possession of the WWE in order to help prove the wrestlers claims about what the WWE knows, and the scope of its legal duties arising from the health crisis it helped to create.

According to the Massachusetts study, funded by the US Centers for Disease control construction workers were “six times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than other workers. “

A Boston University Professor, Leslie I. Borden commented that his research has shown that “injured workers die more frequently from drugs and suicide.”

In other words, University professors, researchers, and important studies conducted in public health, medicine and the scientific community have revealed what every wrestler already knows: exploitative workplaces kill people. Causes and effects have dimensions that can be studied, evaluated, measured with the goal of actually solving a problem and not hiding it in non-public programs whose stated goal is to provide “public relations.”

As a concrete example, within the last week a young 38-year-old wrestler named Brian Danovich passed away. Brian was well known for being on WWE’s show, “Tough Enough” wherein he was injured, but continued to compete. He was supposedly given a WWE developmental deal but didn’t last long. What is curious, and little known is that in a recent podcast, Mr. Danovich (someone who is identified as him) states that he was in a WWE sponsored rehab program for his addiction to pain killers.

Several of the wrestlers involved in the WWE lawsuit also attended the WWE sponsored drug and alcohol programs including Brian Knighton aka Axl Rotten who has was diagnosed at early stages of CTE after his untimely death of a drug overdose in a McDonald’s bathroom.

In the case of plaintiff Mark Canterbury, the WWE has argued in court documents that it has required wrestlers to waive all of their rights under state and Federal law protecting workers such as himself (as asserted in the lawsuit) in order to obtain the WWE sponsored drug and alcohol treatment. The lawsuit takes issue with this stated WWE policy and business practice, arguing that certain legal rights cannot be waived.

As anyone who has knowledge of professional wrestling knows the death rate among the boys and girls from drugs, alcohol, and suicide is staggering. This health crisis from wrestling related injuries (of all kinds including CTE) that is likely responsible for the frequency of drug and alcohol abuse (and deaths), tragically and cynically has been concealed by the WWE through attempted “public relations.” The WWE needs to be held legally responsible for its actions in creating this crisis, the WWE collected data from its programs needs to be examined and the WWE needs to be called to account for its role in concealing the wrestling health crisis.

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