No matter how long the WWE and McMahon family ignore, downplay, create doubt or wait for the passage of time to realign the cultural memory of their long history of wrestler mistreatment and the science of CTE, the memory of Chris Benoit will continue to haunt them.
It’s a powerful memory uniting the spiritual, legal and scientific that casts a long shadow. When Chris Benoit murdered his family and committed suicide it was an enormous tragedy that presented the McMahon family and WWE an opportunity to correct past mistakes. The Benoit events emanated from misfortunes many wrestlers face and will continue to face. Instead of confronting these issues: long-term injuries, a historically unregulated workplace, grueling road schedule, no off-season and the increased risks of CTE in former talent, WWE have been seeking to avoid responsibility for wrestlers’ health, particularly retired wrestlers. Unfortunately, the moral, legal and scientific imperatives of the health crisis tragically illustrated by the Chris Benoit events won’t go away so easily.
Chris Benoit by all accounts was an upstanding family man, driven to perform, technically proficient and had 21 years experience entertaining millions with his skills. The WWE fostered a narrative of his striking physical and mental toughness.
This is graphically illustrated in the WWE coffee table art book, “WWE Unscripted” (Leiker, Vancil Pocket Books 2003) published three years before his death. The glossy photos on its pages show a bloody-eyed stoic Benoit juxtaposed with him grimacing while weight lifting, while the text informs presciently: “I am sure I’m going to have some physical problems down the line.” For those readers that don’t know (Chris certainly could not have), Tau protein accumulation in athletes’ brains associated with CTE is considered by experts to be a present physical injury. The text of the WWE book describes his neck fusion of C6 and C7, nagging injuries and chronic pain and even concludes with a passage that could have been lifted from a sentence in one of the wrestler rights lawsuits: “and we have no off season to recover.”
Chris Benoit’s own WWE illustrated “Unscripted” experience very simply demonstrates the failures of the McMahon family to maintain a safe schedule, workplace and shows the injuries sustained by the people who made them billions of dollars. As the title of the WWE publication suggests Chris Benoit’s injuries were very real and his issues were also present in the WWE’s employment law failures including the creation of these conditions with the use of unconscionable contracts WWE talent are required to sign. The contract violates labor laws (per lawsuit theory), and it even required Chris to waive liability for his own death: “Wrestler hereby releases, waives and discharges promoter from all liability to wrestler and covenants not to sue promoter for any and all loss or damage on account of injury to their person or property or resulting in serious or permanent injury to wrestler or in wrestler’s death, whether caused by negligence of promoter or other wrestler under contract to promoter.”
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the critical emphasis was on his drug use, which is understandable, as illicit drugs are easily identified as the hallmarks of an unsafe workplace. Steroids, pain medications (without prescription) are also easily understood to be a problem, especially when used as a necessary component of athletic activity that a for profit business like WWE monetizes.
After his autopsy and toxicology report, it soon became known that Chris had evidence of drugs in his system. The WWE publicly distanced itself, noted he passed a recent drug test and challenged the notion that drugs played any role in the incident. Later the members of the McMahon family would, under pains and penalties of perjury, be asked to testify on the illegal drug issues in their workplace, including whether Chris had ever any positive drug tests. You can See a May 2006 Chris Benoit “positive” test result here and see the McMahon testimony here.
The issue that would soon augment and overtake the drug abuse was the science of Chris Benoit’s brain tissue. Unlike drug use, which is rampant, commonplace and more easily (falsely) solely attributed by WWE to wrestler choice and conduct, the science of brain disease conjured up more powerful enemies to confront the McMahons.
With the revelation that Benoit had a brain disease now called CTE, WWE deployed its media relations department to create doubt and even the inimitable Mr. McDevitt was enlisted to fight the truth. The chain of custody regarding the Benoit brain tissue slides was to be doubted and hence the veracity of the test, the notion he had brain damage was silly because how did he get to the airport etc. etc. When a second wrestler (Andrew Martin) was diagnosed, the WWE denial playbook was the same.
As the CTE crisis threatened to engulf the NFL and create a billion dollar liability, the WWE strategically funded the leading CTE advocacy group, founded by one of their own former wrestlers, Chris Nowinski. Mr. Nowinski, with supreme irony as he had helped launch his career with the Benoit CTE Study (see this Boston Globe story on Nowinski and Benoit). Unfortunately none of that WWE money was used to fund a dedicated CTE study of former wrestlers brains, none of that money was used to conduct outreach to acquire the brain tissue of the multitude of deceased wrestlers or even apparently dedicated to helping retired wrestlers with CTE. (More in a future post, but this Boston globe story gives you the basics).
Although the WWE attempted to bury all memory of Benoit and CTE science, the memory of Benoit continues to haunt the halls of Titan Towers. The science of CTE in wrestling may have remained buried by the WWE until dozens of professional wrestlers and their families began legal action. The science of CTE in wrestlers was marched forward in court battles involving Balls Mahoney, Jimmy Snuka, Axl Rotten, Rex King and Mr. Fuji, with their families speaking out about their CTE diagnoses after their deaths.
Chris Benoit will be ever present in WWE folklore and the fight for wrestlers’ rights: Short video clip of Chris Speaking before his untimely death featuring Jim Ross venerating him: “I wish we had one hundred Chris Benoits.”
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of Chris Benoits, though not in the sense intended by Mr. Ross. There are hundreds of wrestlers that were overworked, with no off season, whose bodies are seriously injured who treat with addicting drugs, who have inadequate medical care and who face the prospect of being checkmated by a latent neurological disease that may slowly steal their identity and rob them of their conscious being. You may have heard all of this before, you may have read all of this before, but the Ghost of Chris Benoit makes it Real.