Why Linda McMahon’s WWE Wrestlers Won’t Unionize: The Bret Hart Story

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Last night, on USA cable’s Monday Night Raw, Connecticut U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon’s husband Vince – the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment – announced that Bret “The Hitman” Hart would be the guest host of Raw next Monday.

Hart is a retired wrestling legend, and his falling out with the McMahons was about as thorough as it gets. He departed bitterly in 1997. A year and a half later his younger brother, Owen Hart, was killed when his harness failed during a stunt entrance from the rafters at the start of a pay-per-view show. Brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith (“The British Bulldog”), one of the worst of the many steroid abusers in the business, went into cardiac arrest and died in 2002 at age 39, becoming yet another wrestling statistic.

Chris Benoit, of 2007 double murder/suicide infamy, had been trained by patriarch Stu Hart and begun his career with Stampede Wrestling in Western Canada, the Hart family promotion.

Bret Hart retired from wrestling because of the lingering effects of a concussion suffered after he jumped to rival World Championship Wrestling. He later fought back from a paralyzing stroke. He also wrote a rather brilliant autobiography, which became a bestseller in Canada (my review is at http://muchnick.net/hitmanreview.pdf).

In retirement, like so many others, Hart said repeatedly that wrestlers need a union. But he never did much labor organizing when he was a main event star for WWE, which then was an oligopoly and today essentially is a monopoly. And now he’s back, exploiting and being exploited yet again, as part of an “angle.”

I tell Bret Hart’s story not to mock him, but to make the point that what the McMahons’ version of “sports entertainment” needs is not the pipe dream of a union, which will never happen, but toothful regulation by an independent government authority.

On June 29, 2007, Bret Hart and I were both panelists on CNN’s Nancy Grace, talking about the Benoit horror. Hart said steroids had nothing to do with it. I said not so fast. I also said Hart was a “one-man Zelig of death in wrestling.” (The clip is viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXmw7Fmhwgg.)

Not long afterward, Benoit’s toxicology report was released. It showed a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 59-to-1. Folks, that’s 59 times normal and more than ten times outside the boundaries of most mainstream sports steroid testing.

WWE’s assurance that Benoit had “passed” his Wellness Policy drug tests turned out to be another one of its dodges. In fact, his tests had come up positive – obviously – but they were excused by a “therapeutic use exemption.” The logic was as circular as it was self-serving. Benoit’s system had been so messed up by decades of anabolic steroid abuse that he was no longer producing enough male hormones on his own, and was being prescribed off-the-charts quantities of  injectable testosterone. And this just so happened to allow him to maintain the cartoon physique his job demanded.

Irv Muchnick


  1. Jesse Irwin says:

    While I’m glad you’re addressing these issues, and I don’t disagree with you, what sets wrestling apart from other, similar industries to prevent its top earners from remembering their salad days and supporting unionization?

  2. chad says:

    if steroids were the reason of benoit killing his family, then why hasnt every pro bodybuilder out there gone into an extreme rage like this and murdered loved ones? bodybuilders are one way more juice than any pro wrestler! that i can guarantee!

  3. Thanks to Jesse for your comment. Part of what sets wrestling apart is the mindset of the talent, and they have no one to blame for that but themselves. Another is the structure of the industry, with one company controlling the very few top moneymaking spots. But let me add that the reason I raise this topic is not a nostalgia for Woody Guthrie songs. Pro wrestling has a death problem, which is a public health issue. If the problem can’t be solved by organizing the wrestlers — and it can’t — then it needs to be solved by other means.

  4. There are two problems with Chad’s comment and others like it. One is the straw-man aspect of it: I have not argued that steroids were “the reason” for Benoit’s crimes.

    Chad also “guarantees” that bodybuilders are way more juiced than wrestlers. Some bodybuilders who are most abusive of anabolic steroids and growth hormone may indeed have peak intakes exceeding those of most wrestlers. But bodybuilders aren’t on tour constantly; they “cycle.” Nor do bodybuilders take comparable doses of painkillers, muscle relaxers, sleep aids, anti-anxiety and -depression meds — other, and quite possibly even more combustible, ingredients of the “cocktail of death.”

    • chad says:

      i do agree with you wrestlingbabylon that i believe most of benoit and other wrestlers deaths are due to the painkillers more than anything. i’m sure when anabolic steroids, alchohol or any other drug added on top of pain killers make it even more lethal.

  5. chad says:

    i just remember getting very angry when the media was saying the murders were just from roid rage when it was obviously alot more than that!

  6. Chris Marullo says:

    I would love to see the wrestlers unionize but it just won’t happen. Even if Undertaker, John Cena and Shawn Michaels started one today, I think Vince would rather fire them than let them start a union. Not saying that wouldn’t be a huge mistake, but he probably would just out of pride.

    A few weeks ago, Dave Meltzer suggested that wrestlers join the Screen Actors Guild. Even if they did I’m sure Vince wouldn’t recognize the union and claim that he’s “sports entertainment” thereby somehow making WWE exempt from union contracts because he invented a clever little term.

    Now that I bring this up, I wonder if the wrestlers who were in some of the WWE movies like Cena, Kane & DiBiase are in SAG…

  7. Dan says:

    Interesting read. When you consider how nepotistic wrestling is and how cronyism rules the roost, it is hardly surprising that there is no unionization. Those on the way up don’t want to fall foul of their promoter and lose that push for being a trouble-maker, those at the top having got to the top see no reason to protect those at the bottom.

    It would also have to involve all of those working in indie feds of all kinds as well. So the logistics of trying to organize that are enough to put off many people.

    What I can’t really understand is why Hart is ‘selling out’ to McMahon after everything that has happened.

    Why does the media etc keep on giving the WWE such an easy time by being so under-prepared or ill-informed when it comes to challenging the WWE party line? Is it that because they don’t consider it to be serious ‘sport’ so they don’t bother to investigate it properly. If MLB, NHL, or NFL had as higher proportion of premature deaths of employees and former employees from heart attacks and other related problems as the WWE/TNA have had then Selig, Bettman and Goodell would find themselves up on Capitol Hill faster than a dodgy 3 count.

  8. BeachGuy says:

    Linda McMahon is running for the U.S. Senate???

    And, yes, the “therapeutic exemption” is questionable, to say the least. Wasn’t Benoit’s steroid selling doctor busted?

    • Yes, Dr. Phil Astin is serving a ten-year federal prison sentence. He also has been named in a wrongful-death civil suit filed by Nancy Benoit’s side of the family.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick