I've often made the comment in stories about former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's Senate bid that any focus on the in-ring misogyny and other content was besides the point. To borrow a phrase from James Carville, it's the deaths, stupid.
And sure, I've referenced studies on pro wrestling's high death rate for its young athletes -- far worse than, say, professional football and similar pursuits. But I haven't been able to explain in full how the culture and lifestyle of the WWE -- choices McMahon and her husband made in terms of which performers would be promoted and how grueling of a physical schedule they were told to endure -- forced so many of these independent contractors into a vicious cycle of performance-enhancing drugs and painkiller abuse, leading to premature deaths.
Recently-released WWE performer Lance McNaught ("Lance Cade") died last week of heart failure at the age of 29. That's right -- 29 -- an age at which no one should be dying of heart failure.
A pseudonymous writer for Deadspin, "The Masked Man," picks up the tale:
It wasn't long ago that juiced-up Adonises dominated the top ranks of the WWE. (Some would say that the John Cena-Batista feuds in recent years are evidence that little has changed.) There certainly have been stories in the past about Vince McMahon suggesting that wrestlers go "on the gas" to help their look. And the steroids are only one end of a vicious cycle of self-medication: The grinding schedule necessitates painkillers and sleeping pills to aid in recovery, and those require uppers so you can be ready to go again the next day. Add to that the inevitable impulses of being young and wealthy, living a life on the road in a bawdy boys club, and the potential for myriad chemical abuses comes into stark focus. If it's not exactly the East German Olympic team, it's certainly a culture of excess, one full of destructive incentives. Some of the responsibility has to fall on the McMahons.
This is where Lance Cade's death has particular import. Because Cade, like so many of the other wrestlers who have died over the past 15 years, was addicted at various times to painkillers and sleeping pills, and earlier this year he went to rehab for (reportedly) the second time. The WWE paid for his first trip to rehab, and while that in and of itself doesn't make the organization culpable, it's an implicit recognition that Cade's health did in some way fall under the WWE's purview....
Cade was fired three times by the WWE for not having his substance abuse problems under control — the first after suffering a pill-induced seizure on a company flight, and the second time after admitting he had a problem and going to rehab. Despite his confessions of drug use, though, Cade claimed he never actually failed a Wellness Policy test. And there was never any indication that his work suffered from his dependencies. As with Umaga (Eddie Fatu), who died this year, there is the feeling that the WWE finally cut ties with Cade because he had become a liability — because despite wrestling's attempts to help him, Cade's talents did not outweigh the potential for negative press should his addictions finally get the better of him. If this was indeed the calculus, there's a miserable sort of logic at work, and in its prescience it's doubly heartbreaking.
[The McMahons'] entrepreneurial impulse has led the WWE to discourage unionization, to keep the work schedule as grueling as the wrestlers' bodies will allow (and often won't allow), and to keep the health benefits minimal. (Despite their willingness to pay for medical bills and rehab, it's remarkable that they do so only at their own discretion.) Linda McMahon has been touting her business acumen relentlessly on the campaign trail — she advertises that she "helped grow the company from a modest 13-person operation to a global enterprise with over 500 employees." But I would wager that number doesn't factor in the wrestlers, because as far as WWE is concerned, they're not even really employees — they're independent contractors: no 401K, no health insurance. Doctrinaire capitalism might make for good profit margins — and it might make for good Republican politics — but it doesn't make for good business practice. Despite their cartoonish personas, pro wrestlers are human. And Linda McMahon and the WWE owe a debt to the performers, frail as they may be, who built their company and to those who continue to keep it afloat. If a work environment is toxic, it's the employer's obligation to make her employees safe. The WWE too often winks and waves the banner of Sports Entertainment and laughs it off. Asked in 2007 why the WWE offers counseling services to former employees, Vince 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."
That 2007 interview was actually with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform following the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide, and it's worth your reading in full. The cravenness of the McMahons and the insincerity of their so-called "Wellness Policy" is laid out in full view. They don't care about the well-being of those who built their empire; Linda McMahon cares about profit, pure and simple.
Don't be distracted by the soap opera that's broadcast when the cameras are on. It's the deaths, stupid.