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Patrick Hruby

Cheap Heat

Why the WWE concussion lawsuit makes a weak case.
By Patrick Hruby | VICE Sports | January 2015


Here's the thing about the new class action concussion lawsuit filed against World Wrestling Entertainment: there's definitely a good brain damage case to be made within the world of pro wrestling. Perhaps not a legal figure-four, but certainly a strong enough case to strike a healthy amount of fear into the industry, and encourage a global settlement that would better protect and care for wrestlers past, present, and future.

Problem is, this is not that lawsuit. Not yet, at least.

Filed in federal court earlier this week on behalf of former wrestlers Evan Singleton and Vito LoGrasso—a.k.a. "Skull Von Krush," no irony intended—the 40-page complaint claims that both men suffered long-term neurological harm while wrestling in WWE matches and now experience debilitating symptoms such as migraines, memory loss, deafness, and depression. It also alleges that WWE mistreated its workforce and contributed to that harm by amping up match brutality, failing to diagnose concussions, and engaging "in a campaign of misinformation and deception" about the long-term brain damage risks of wrestling.

At first glance, all of this looks very similar to the concussion case brought against the National Football League by more than 4,500 former players—a high-profile class action suit that is moving toward a proposed (if inadequate and arguably evil) multimillion dollar settlement. Like the NFL patients, Singleton and LoGrasso allege that their employer didn't provide adequate medical care, failed to warn them about long-term risks, and downplayed, denied, and actively covered up the problem. But overall, this case against WWE is not as robust as the case against the NFL.

Like the NFL, the WWE is in the business of selling violence. The wrestling lawsuit is at its best and most persuasive when making this point, as well as the obvious corollary: the violence in question involves getting hit in the head, hard, which in turn causes brain damage.

Think popular moves like the brainbuster, a vertical suplex that terminates with a headfirst landing. Think ladder matches—note to non-wrestling devotees: matches in which wrestlers literally climb up, leap off, and assault each other with ladders—that end with participants getting staples and stitches in their split, bloodied scalps. Think of all the head shots wrestlers take while learning their craft, and all of the blows they absorb when tricky, dangerous stunts inevitably go wrong.

Then there are the folding chairs. As the lawsuit rightly points out—and helpfully illustrates with an action shot of WWE chief executive Vince McMahon—WWE "instructs its wrestlers to use steel chairs to batter each other. In countless WWE matches, fighters have slammed chairs over the heads of their opponents." Of course, pro wrestlers aren't trying to actually hurt each other. Quite the opposite. Still, the suit makes clear that they endure plenty of punishment, because chairs don't care about good intentions:

... in a 1999 match, wrestler Michael "Mick" Foley was knocked unconscious after being hit by a chair 11 times while his hands were tied behind his back. Five shots connected directly with Foley's head. Foley later remarked, "I was in a match that had gotten carried away. I was suffering a great deal, and I wanted it to end."
Likewise, in a notorious "no disqualification" match in 2008, WWE wrestler Shawn Hickenbotton, also known as Shawn Michaels, delivered blows to Lance McNaught, also known as Lance Cade, with a steel chair. One shot, delivered at full force, hit McNaught directly in the skull ...

The hits add up. Foley—a retired fan favorite who estimates that he suffered at least 40-50 concussions during his time as a wrestler—believes he has permanent brain damage. A single kick to the head left Bret "The Hitman" Hart with post-concussion syndrome and effectively ended his career. In the lawsuit, Singleton alleges that "numerous subconcussive blows to the head" and a "serious head injury" sustained in a 2013 WWE match left him with a brain bleed and debilitating, ongoing symptoms including "tremors, convulsions, migraines, memory loss and impaired ability to reason"; meanwhile, LoGrasso claims that his symptoms, including deafness, are a result of sustaining "blows from chairs, metal garbage cans and baseball bats" as well as being "throwing through objections [sic] including tables."

Two deceased former wrestlers—Andrew "Test" Martin and Chris Benoit—have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative condition linked to repetitive brain trauma, also found in the brains of deceased football players Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau and at at the heart of the NFL lawsuit. Moreover, the man most responsible for making CTE part of the national conversation, former Harvard University football player Chris Nowinski, became a brain trauma activist after retiring from WWE due to concussions.

In the here and now, few would dispute that pro wrestling can be bad for one's brain. The WWE lawsuit argues that McMahon's company made things worse—in part by increasing the level of violence (and concussion risk) in its matches; in part by failing to diagnose injured wrestlers; in part by neglecting to remove the injured from harm's way. From the complaint:

... Instead of stopping events when wrestlers have sustained head injuries, WWE, along with its doctors and medical professionals, has allowed such events to continue, placing injured wrestlers at even greater risk.
During and after wrestling events, medical professionals associated with WWE have negligently or purposefully failed to diagnose concussions. This has served to assuage the concerns of wrestlers and continued to conceal WWE's exploitation of wrestlers ...
... it is not simply that WWE has failed to protect its wrestlers. WWE deliberately creates and heightens the violence of its matches in order to "heat" up audiences and increase its profits ...

All three allegations are crucial. And probably accurate, at least to some extent. Crowd-pleasing, increasingly risky and violent stunt work helped sustain and grow pro wrestling during the 1990s "Attitude Era." The sport—er, promotion?—has a long, undistinguished history of not giving a shit about the health and well-being of its participants. Wrestling has no offseason, many of its performers are replaceable, semi-anonymous spray-tanned chum, and all of them are independent contractors.

As such, it's easy to imagine WWE-affiliated match and road doctors looking the other way when chair-whacked wrestlers complain about headaches and seeing stars, and even easier to imagine those same wrestlers not bothering to complain in the first place. That said, evidence beats imagination, particularly in federal court. And that's where the WWE suit feels skimpy.

The WWE suit argues that "for years," company doctors existed to "rubber stamp wrestler participation long past the outer boundaries of then-known safety guidelines." In support, it cites a 2007 match where wrestler Candice Michelle was knocked unconscious after falling from a rope, then pulled to the center of the ring in order to be pinned; a 2010 match where wrestler Mark Calloway suffered a broken nose and concussion but kept performing; and a 1998 match the suit describes like this:

... wrestler Mick Foley was thrown from the top of a steel cage, at which point he was knocked unconscious. Rather than ending the fight, the "referee" and the "medical team" on sight allowed the wrestler to finish the match when he regained consciousness. Indeed, the video from the incident suggests that the medical staff merely pretended to examine Foley for the benefit of the ongoing "action soap opera." When Foley stood up, a WWE announcer yelled with glee, "He's either crazier than hell, or he's the toughest S.O.B. I've ever seen . . . !" The announcers then proceeded to debate whether the item sticking out of Foley's bloody nose was a tooth or some other foreign object. In fact, it was one of Foley's teeth. After Foley sustained these injuries, the match continued for an additional ten minutes ...

And that's it. That's the list. None of these incidents is exactly good—at the very least, they probably qualify as medical malpractice—but taken together, they don't add up to a slam dunk systemic indictment of WWE. Is it suspicious that the company all but purged Benoit from its history? Sure. Was it stupid—and predictable—when McMahon and his wife, former WWE executive Linda, attacked Benoit's CTE diagnosis in a 2007 CNN documentary? Of course. Was it downright laughable when during the same year company executive Stephanie McMahon Levesque told Congress that there were no documented concussions in WWE's history? Without a doubt.

Pro wrestling could have done more about brain trauma. It should have done more. Still, there's a big gap between the WWE's laissez-faire, seemingly indifferent approach to athlete brain health and the NFL's willful scheming and deception. At least based on the information in Singleton and LoGrasso's suit.

Case in point: neurologist Joe Maroon was a member of the NFL's concussion committee and a team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's a major figure in the League of Denial book. He's a co-creator of ImPACT, a popular, heavily-marketed concussion evaluation system that has been called into question for conflicts of interest and a lack of scientific validity. If the NFL concussion suit ever reached legal discovery—or trial, for that matter—he would be a key witness, someone the retired players' lawyers would be delighted to grill.

Since 2008, Maroon also has been WWE's medical director—a fact that merits just a single sentence in the wrestling lawsuit.

In a way, the NFL and WWE lawsuits are funhouse mirrors of each other. In the former, the facts of the case already are solid. Full discovery—depositions, document dumps, getting to the bottom of what the league knew and when it knew it—poses a major threat to both NFL management and the league's public standing. In the latter, the facts are barely evident at all. There was no WWE concussion committee, nobody cooking data, nobody making absurd scientific claims—but that's because there was no damning case being built against the promotion.

Over its 40 pages, the WWE suit reads less like an indictment than a fishing expedition, an opening grab for damning facts. And maybe that's the point. Maybe Singleton and LoGrasso's lawyers are looking for negotiating leverage, and maybe they'll find enough to bring their WWE counterparts to the bargaining table. (If any industry has a closet full of skeletons it would rather not open, it's probably pro wrestling; an otherwise incongruous section in the complaint regarding steroids seems specifically designed to remind McMahon of this fact).

In the meantime, the case needs more. More plaintiffs. More substance. More evidence. The extra physicality in a match. Foley's broken, embedded tooth. The off-a-ladder elbow that doesn't just connect, but smashes the skull with a satisfying thwack!

Testifying before Congress, McMahon Levesque defined "heat" as "when you are really beating someone down in order to elicit a reaction from the crowd of, 'Oh, my God, please get up, get up, get up.' And the guy can't." More than anything else, this lawsuit needs more heat.

Read the original article at Vice Sports