In November 2005 professional wrestling in America got the wake up call that had been coming for years. World Wrestling Entertainment lost one of its biggest talents in Eddie Guerrero from heart failure brought on from drug abuse years earlier. For years WWE under Vince McMahon has done little to curb the influence of drugs in the company. Wrestlers would use anything from steroids to harder substances such as heroin and cocaine on a regular basis. Working a gruelling schedule where they would be away from their families for most of the week, wrestlers often turned to drugs because of depression or to relieve the constant pain in their bodies brought on from too much wrestling.
The result of being overworked is countless amounts of wrestler”s deaths well before the age of fifty. These include big names such as Curt Hennig, Chris Benoit, Brian Pillman and Davey Boy Smith. The result for McMahon by working these men like a Grand National horse is a multimillion-dollar company that reaches over a billion fans on TV around the world each week.
In 2005, Eddie Guerrero died whilst under contract to WWE. It was huge news in America and embarrassing for McMahon to have his company scrutinised by the media. McMahon’s response was to implement a drug testing programme in early 2006 known as the Wellness Programme. For the first time in the company’s history, wrestlers would be tested on occasions for drugs. Any wrestlers to test positive would be suspended for a period without pay. If the same wrestler failed a second Wellness test the suspension would be for longer and a third failure would result in being dismissed from employment.
Over the last two years since Wellness was introduced, the WWE has had to suspend many wrestlers for violation of the policy. These include the biggest talents in the company today such as former world champion Randy Orton and fan favourite Jeff Hardy. Guerrero’s death has clearly not stamped out the use of drugs in the company, which was the intention of Wellness.
In June 2007, things went from bad to worse for McMahon. Chris Benoit, a twenty year veteran and major star in the company, killed his wife and son before hanging himself in the family home. It is unknown to this day whether drugs were the direct cause of the Benoit family deaths. Two months earlier he tested negative under Wellness, however, steroids were found at the family home at the time of the deaths. One thing for sure is this was the last thing WWE needed so soon after Guerrero’s death. A media frenzy erupted and Congress soon started investigating the use of drugs in wrestling. This wasn’t the first time politicians had investigated the industry. In 1994, McMahon took on the US Government in a now-infamous trial and on that occasion McMahon was successful. Eleven years later his company was thrown back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
It’s clear that many wrestlers lives would have been saved had there been a proper regulated system imposed in his company and others. WWE wrestlers, unlike wrestlers in many other companies, often wrestle up to two or three times a week every week (more on world tours) of the year. They are overworked in an industry where there are no pensions or trade unions in place. Because the WWE has a near-monopoly in America after WCW and ECW went bankrupt in 2001, it’s not as simple as quitting to join a rival organisation to work a lighter schedule. In fact the only other wrestling company in America that will stand a chance of competing with the WWE in the near future is Total Nonstop Action based in Orlando, Florida. After TNA, if a wrestler wants a high wage they would usually have to look at the major Japanese organisations.
Changes need to be made fast and the WWE needs to set the standards as the biggest wrestling company in the world. Reducing the amount of shows considerably as well as introducing wrestlers rights such as pensions and a union would be a sign that the company understands the challenges needing to be met after Guerrero and Benoit’s deaths. McMahon should also be giving each wrestler regular breaks to see their families. The introduction of such measures would lead to a safer industry for the wrestlers and re-assurance for everyone connected with the industry.
This is not just a problem for the WWE, drugs are a problem in wrestling generally and other organisations need to take similar steps. If action is not taken it won’t be long before the wrestling world suffers another young tragic death.