Bruno Sammartino, pro wrestling’s “living legend,” has buried a two-decade-old hatchet and, at age 77, renewed his relationship with WWE and boss Vince McMahon. The deal includes his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame (an even more blatant marketing gimmick than most such Halls), release of a DVD on his career, and television appearances.
In itself, Sammartino’s move, something of a hell-freezes-over moment, matters only to fans of the peculiar wrestling industry. But it also matters to everyone because of Sammartino’s wholly misguided rationale. In interviews with ESPN and other outlets, Sammartino has said that a key persuasive factor was the presence of WWE medical director Dr. Joseph Maroon, who oversees the company’s “wellness policy,” which includes drug-testing the performers.
Maroon is a skilled neurosurgeon. Sammartino believes Maroon’s care of his spinal injuries — including the aftermath of surgery for a broken neck — was huge in his largely happy and healthy post-active career life. I don’t doubt Sammartino on that score, and it is no small thing.
Unfortunately, Sammartino’s personal loyalty seems to be blinding him from the reality that Joe Maroon is also a miserable public health quack. Sammartino has made a huge mistake not only by taking McMahon money, which he doesn’t need, but also by framing their new relationship as an endorsement of WWE and a vow to serve as its conscience. (The latter piece is not off to a very good start: all terms of the deal are “confidential.”)
The anti-Maroon file is one of the thickest at this blog; you can read all about it in the archives here and in my year-old ebook, UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zero. Briefly:
* Maroon is an anti-aging and supplement huckster.
* Maroon lied about WWE’s access to the chronic traumatic encephelopathy research on the brains of dead wrestlers Chris Benoit and Andrew Martin.
* As Maroon’s research nemesis Dr. Bennet Omalu — father of the modern CTE field — conclusively documented, Maroon, as team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, lied about the concussion history of retired Steeler Terry Long, who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze.
* Maroon’s University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which services the Steelers and many other sports entities, has an awful record on steroids and growth hormone.
* The for-profit spinoff ImPACT Applications, Inc., co-owned by Maroon, which markets the most popular “concussion management tool,” is deeply flawed, in my and many others’ opinions. I don’t expect Sammartino necessarily to buy all my views on this, or on the existential crisis of football. But he should know that Maroon is intellectually dishonest in his public arguments when he asserts (to cite only one example) that football is safer for teens than driving in a car.
Bruno Sammartino is a friend. There were few if any wrestling promoters more respected than my late uncle Sam Muchnick, who ran shows out of St. Louis and led a consortium (a cartel, really) called the National Wrestling Alliance throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. And there were few if any pro wrestlers who ever comported themselves, in or out of the ring, as well as Sammartino. In 1992, the day after he went mano a mano with Vince McMahon on Larry King Live, I called Bruno to tell him I thought it was his finest hour.
Through a much closer friend, I let Bruno know in advance that I would be writing this, more in sorrow than in anger. Like it not, he now owns the WWE wellness policy. In that capacity, I believe he is obliged to explain publicly — just for starters — what he knows about what, if anything, 40-year-old, chiseled, 265-pound movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has peed into a cup in his return as the company’s champion, top star, and WrestleMania headliner.