The great escape

The Baltimore Sun

When wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son and hanged himself last summer, some wondered if his former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, would face congressional scrutiny or even financial peril.

Dozens of Benoit's peers, including several WWE headliners, had already died young, with many of their passings linked to steroid abuse, painkiller addiction and other stresses associated with grueling travel and performance schedules. But the grisly Benoit episode, with its ties to steroids, concussions and other hot-button issues, dragged the WWE into mainstream headlines like never before.

Could the company continue to thrive as it had after past tragedies?

Ten months later, the WWE sold out Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena on Sunday for its Backlash pay-per-view show. The sellout wasn't a fluke. Business is good.

The WWE overcame television ratings dips after the Benoit killings and a general decline in pay-per-view buys to earn a record $485.7 million in gross revenue in 2007. Expanded overseas viewership and DVD sales have fortified the company.

On March 30, the WWE drew 74,635 fans to Orlando's Citrus Bowl for its Wrestlemania XXIV extravaganza. Early indicators suggest that more than 1 million people paid $55 to $70 each to watch on television around the world. Mainstream stars such as rapper Snoop Dogg, singer John Legend and boxer Floyd Mayweather seemed happy to appear with wrestling stalwarts John Cena and Triple H.

Two weeks ago, the three major presidential candidates appeared in taped segments on WWE's RAW program to ask for votes from wrestling fans.

"Can anything happen that would be bad enough to hurt the industry long-term with the public?" said Dave Meltzer, who has covered the business for more than 25 years in his Wrestling Observer newsletter. "I think this told us no. As long as you can come back and present an entertaining product, that's what fans care about."

The company wasn't sure how the Benoit tragedy would impact business, spokesman Gary Davis said, but followed a simple formula to confront the issue.

"We continued to focus on our business fundamentals and to be responsive to legitimate concerns and questions posed to us about the issues," he said.

Skeptics wonder if the WWE has gotten back to business as usual and escaped the Benoit scandal a little too unscathed.

"Every time something terrible happens, you hear the claims that they're going to clean up," said the WWE's greatest early star, Bruno Sammartino. "But the fact is that after things quiet down and they maybe release a few nobodies to show they mean business, they go back to their old ways. In my opinion, I still see physiques that you just can't get by doing it the natural way."

The WWE says it has implemented and enforced one of the strictest testing policies for steroids and recreational drugs in sports or entertainment. Two months after the Benoit incident, the company suspended 10 wrestlers, including Adam Copeland (Edge), Ken Anderson (Mr. Kennedy) and Edward Fatu (Umaga), for their connections to a federal steroids investigation. WWE suspended another star, Jeff Hardy, just before Wrestlemania.

The company also offered to pay for drug treatment for any of its former wrestlers and now requires annual physicals and cardiac tests for all performers.

Moves like that, along with a heightened awareness of other health concerns such as concussions, show that the company is moving in a better direction, said Marc Mero, a former WWE wrestler who sharply criticized the company in the wake of Benoit's death.

"They have been making strides to change the business," said Mero, who used steroids and recreational drugs during his career. "Can more be done? Well sure, always. My main thing is to make sure the progress doesn't go away."

Meltzer agreed that the Benoit tragedy spurred positive change. "No one believes it's 100 percent clean," he said. "But has it made a difference? Yes."

Davis said he'd like fans to understand "that WWE is committed to doing everything it can to help WWE performers of today lead healthier lives than pro wrestlers of past generations."

The WWE has so far avoided congressional hearings (Congress did request testing records from the company, and chairman Vince McMahon was invited to a recent session featuring other sports commissioners but declined to attend because his attorney couldn't break away from another case).

Placed in a broader sports context, the WWE's resilience is hardly shocking. Baseball just posted a record revenue year despite steroid scandals that have dragged its commissioner before Congress and scarred the reputations of its greatest players. The NFL is the nation's most popular league despite the poor behavior of some players and a cheating scandal around its most glamorous team.

But the wrestling industry's history with drugs and premature death is bleaker.

In the wake of Benoit's death, Meltzer counted 62 wrestlers between 1997 and 2007 who had performed in major promotions and died before age 50. Similar death rates in baseball or football would have provoked national cries for reform, he said, but he believes congressmen don't want to be mocked for investigating a business regarded by many as sleazy or cartoonish.

"It's a little disturbing to think that a hallowed record in baseball carries more weight than the lives of 40 wrestlers," Meltzer said. "But that's the truth of it."

The WWE began drug testing in 1987 and cracked down on steroid use in the 1990s, after McMahon faced federal charges for allegedly distributing the muscle builders. But McMahon won his case. In 1996, the drug policy was dropped.

The company announced a new wellness policy in early 2006 after the sudden death of Benoit's close friend, Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero had battled an addiction to painkillers, and an autopsy listed steroid use as a possible cause of the heart attack that killed him.

The policy contained one seeming loophole, permitting steroid use with a valid prescription from a doctor.

Georgia authorities found large quantities of prescription steroids and painkillers in Benoit's home (his doctor, Phil Astin, was subsequently arrested and indicted for improperly distributing drugs). Toxicology reports confirmed that Benoit had drugs in his system at the time of his death.

That seemed an embarrassing indictment of WWE's drug policy, Meltzer wrote, given that Benoit was never flagged for suspension.

Davis disagreed.

"We do not believe there is a loophole in our program," he said. "There is a provision which tracks the laws of this country, permitting the use of prescription medicines only for legitimate medical purposes as determined by the treating physician. This provision is something that is part of all drug testing programs undertaken by professional sports of which we are aware."

Autopsy examinations of Benoit's brain also found significant signs of damage from concussions.

Shortly after his murder/suicide, the company began another crackdown on steroid and drug use. Even before then, the WWE had lightened travel schedules for many top performers and encouraged a safer style (though steel chair shots to the head and acrobatic dives are still a part of big shows).

Observers differ on whether the company has de-emphasized a fixation on muscularity that led many performers to use steroids.

"The pressure to get that look is still huge," Meltzer said. "But where their developmental system used to be filled with one roided up guy after another, you don't see that anymore. It's not hitting me in the face as much that guys are loaded up on something."

Mero wishes the company would meet Olympic standards by hiring an independent drug tester and publishing results.

Sammartino doesn't watch much these days but finds it hard to believe that top performers don't use steroids or similar substances.

With his thick chest and shoulders, he was considered a strongman in his day. He retired in 1981 and by the time he returned for an announcing stint in 1984, he saw radical changes in the physiques of top performers. Hulk Hogan's bulging biceps and well-defined pectorals were the new ideal and it made Sammartino sick, because he strongly suspected that steroids were the fuel.

He actually flexed beside Hogan after his last match at the Baltimore Arena in 1987, hoping fans would compare. "Let them see what a person looks like who does natural training without chemicals and is in his 50s," he said angrily.

Sammartino tried speaking out on television shows in the late 1980s. "But after two years, I found out that nobody cared," he said. "I got myself so deeply involved, and it was all for nil."

He felt his words again were ignored after the Benoit tragedy. "This is just like it was all those years ago," he said. "You pound your head against the wall to try to bring changes, and nothing happens."

Meltzer and Mero agreed that fan apathy is undeniable.

"What happened with Benoit was far worse than anything I or anybody else could have imagined," Meltzer said. "And fans were numb to it. It was like, as long as the company entertains us, we'll come back."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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