Those of you who think I pick on wrestling fans should take a look at the latest turn of my reporting on the concussion crisis in sports. Lately I’ve been confronting football and its fans, but the principle is the same: those of us who enjoy athletic spectacles bear a share of responsibility for the public health fallout of the popular entertainments we help make and sustain.
The least defensive of wrestling fans have always understood that my focus on the death pandemic in the WWE era was a compliment as much as a putdown. I’ve simply been writing about a netherworld on which I have a unique perspective from my family background. At the same time, I refuse to give the wrestling industry a pass, which would be patronizing.
Internally, smart fans agree that wrestling is more real – and the rest of the world more worked – than is commonly presumed. It’s just that when someone goes to the trouble of pointing this out in life-and-death specifics, and refuses to turn the page, the instinct is to shoot the messenger rather than process the facts.
Yes, adult accountability is a hard thing all the way around. Right now I’m in public disagreement with a guy named Brian Frederick, who started an organization called the Sports Fans Coalition. The concept behind this lobby is that the owners of major sports leagues need to be pressured in the halls of Congress to stop taking their devoted followers for granted. Which is fine as far as it goes. The list of the coalition’s urgent “public policy issues,” however, somehow doesn’t include widespread traumatic brain injury. It is reserved for items such as ending local blackouts of pro football games that didn’t sell out their stadiums in advance, and abolishing college football’s Bowl Championship Series.
Wrestling fans have a stake in this debate. This is not only because the industry’s toll of early deaths and ruined lives proportionally exceeds football’s. There are also impossible-to-ignore connections among the players. The profile of the concussion crisis was permanently elevated by the 2007 murder-suicide of Chris Benoit. A leading figure in the resulting civic dialogue (though a disappointingly bland one of late, in my view) is ex-wrestler Chris Nowinski. WWE’s medical director, Dr. Joseph Maroon, is an NFL consultant and spokesman whose hyper-commercialism and shady research on concussions are ground zero of an undercovered two-decade-long behind-the-scenes story.
The masses spend their passion on the fantasies of The Rock and C.M. Punk, and their apathy on public health. I get that. But if you all don’t mind – or even if you do – I think I’ll keep pitching.
Irv Muchnick, author of WRESTLING BABYLON and CHRIS & NANCY, recently launched the website Concussion Inc. (http://concussioninc.net).