Pop quiz: What’s the same and what’s different about pro football and pro wrestling?
Answer: The National Football League, under pressure from Congress, recently announced changes in its protocols for treatment of concussions, and restructured the internal committee studying the problem. Meanwhile, Linda McMahon, until recently the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is running for the U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut and has pledged to spend up to $50 million of her wrestling-gotten riches in her quest.
Credit for most of the progress in the understanding the long-term effects of brain trauma in collision sports and entertainment goes to two people. Chris Nowinski, a Harvard grad who became a WWE wrestler but then had to retire after a series of occupational concussions made it impossible for him to function, started the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to public education and prevention in this area. Dr. Bennet Omalu is among the researchers whose brain autopsies of dead football players and wrestlers who died young, and often violently, show damage consistent with Alzheimer’s patients twice their age.
Omalu’s latest findings are on WWE’s Andrew “Test” Martin, who left the company with painkiller and steroid addictions. (His very nickname was an inside-wrestling joke about WWE drug-testing. A regular riot, these wrestling people are.) Martin, 33, became one of the many casualties of 2009: in March he was found dead in his Tampa condo.
Now ESPN.com has a piece about Dr. Omalu’s April examination of Martin’s brain (“Doctors: Wrestler had brain damage,” http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4724912). Omalu concludes that Martin — like Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and their son, then killed himself, in 2007 — had a syndrome termed “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”
(In this context, whether drug abuse is a more or less important factor than brain damage doesn’t matter. Both are major ingredients in pro wrestling’s cocktail of death.)
After Benoit, WWE instituted baseline neurological testing for talent. The McMahons also kind-of-sort-of mumbled that hard-core “chair shots” by one wrestler on another were being discouraged. This meant that there would be no more chair shots — until there were again.
WWE has a pay-per-view event on December 13 entitled “TLC.” The initials stand for “tables, ladders, and chairs,” the props used to inflict punishment in this type of performance. In a promo for the show, wrestler Chris Jericho is shown taking a chair shot, after which cartoon cuckoo birds circle his noggin.
Next post: a crash course on the history and motivations of the McMahon-engineered deregulation of pro wrestling.