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WrestleMania in Connecticut

Having built a billion-dollar sports business is Linda McMahon’s calling card in the Senate race—it’s also her Achilles’ heel.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Barring cataclysm, Connecticut Republicans will nominate Linda McMahon to run for Chris Dodd’s vacant Senate seat on August 10. McMahon is a political neophyte. Her chief credential is that she was CEO of America’s largest professional wrestling outfit, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

WrestleMania in Connecticut

Photo Credit: Getty

McMahon is not the first figure from professional wrestling to enter politics. In 1974, Jim Crockett, who ran the National Wrestling Alliance, ran for the Senate in North Carolina. He finished sixth in a field of six in the GOP primary. And, in 1990, Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Eight years later, he was governor of the state.

But McMahon may be the first person to run for office for whom wrestling is not merely a name-recognition bonus, but rather the raison d’être of her campaign. It is both McMahon’s signal achievement and her most glaring vulnerability.

Connecticut has been tough sledding for Republicans for more than half-a-century. Since 1953, Connecticut has sent just one Republican to the Senate: Lowell Weicker. A very liberal Republican, Weicker served three terms in the Senate before being elected governor in 1990. McMahon and her husband Vince have known Weicker for many years. In 1999, when the WWE went public, Weicker was appointed to the company’s board of directors.

In the mid-1980s, the McMahons became friendly with NBC producer Dick Ebersol and his wife, the actress Susan Saint James. James got Linda McMahon involved with the Special Olympics, a cause which she and her husband have vigorously supported ever since. This involvement formed another bond with Weicker, whose son, Sonny, is both developmentally disabled and a big wrestling fan. Weicker named McMahon to the governor’s council for the World Special Olympics. 

Weicker, who supported Obama in 2008, is not much loved by national Republicans, but Linda McMahon needs all the friends she can get in Connecticut. In 2000 Al Gore carried the state by 56 percent to 38 percent. John Kerry slipped a bit, winning only by 10 points, but in 2008 Barack Obama came storming back, carrying it by a 23-point margin. First elected to the Senate in 1980 with 56 percent of the vote, Chris Dodd won reelection four times, and was under 65 percent only once.

McMahon declared for the race in September 2009 assuming she would face Dodd, increasingly unpopular and burdened by financial scandals. Dodd stepped aside in January, and the state’s longtime attorney general, Dick Blumenthal, became the presumptive Democratic nominee. But Blumenthal has been exposed as having lied—in a serial manner—about having served in Vietnam. And elections around the country have revealed a strong sentiment against career politicians. McMahon’s political inexperience has been transformed from a bug to a feature.

And then there’s the money. McMahon rides into battle with the ability to self-finance an enormous campaign operation. She has already spent $16.5 million of her own money (and the Republican primary isn’t until August). McMahon has said she’s willing to spend $50 million on the race. Blumenthal has raised a total of $2.3 million thus far. Charlie Cook rates the contest as only “leans Democratic,” which is remarkable for a Senate race in the Nutmeg State.

McMahon was born Linda Marie Edwards in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1948. She attended East Carolina University and married her high-school sweetheart, Vince McMahon, in 1966. Vince was the son of a wrestling impresario who owned the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Back then, professional wrestling was not a national product. A handful of promoters owned individual associations, which controlled discrete territories. McMahon’s WWWF dominated the Northeast, making it one of the sport’s bigger promotions.

In those days, wrestlers were essentially carnies. They barnstormed from town to town trying to sucker “marks” (what the industry calls paying customers to this day) into buying tickets to their shows. With no national following, it was easy for a wrestler to bounce from one territory to another whenever his act got stale. Very few people—even in management—made much money.

The McMahons spent the early part of their marriage promoting minor league hockey and various Evel Knievel-like events. Vince finally bought the business from his father in 1982.

Not content to run a regional enterprise, the McMahons believed they could use television to create a national brand. Promoters had put wrestling on television for decades, but always as an afterthought. The McMahons aggressively sought out television contracts in scores of local markets on UHF channels. They gave their shows away—and in some cases even paid stations to air them. The idea was to use television as billboards for live shows. It worked.

The renamed World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was already gobbling up its competitors when the McMahons discovered cable. As the cable revolution was spreading through middle America, the McMahons found that hungry new cable stations were desperate for product to fill airtime. They signed a deal with the USA network, which quickly became a cash-cow. By 1985, their USA show had brought them enough visibility to entice NBC to air a series of wrestling specials in their Saturday late-night slot. The WWF had gone from carnival attraction to network programming.

In 1985, the McMahons made another discovery. They staged a yearly wrestling mega-show—“Wrestle-Mania”—and were trying to find a way to milk ancillary dollars from the event. By WrestleMania III, a new technology appeared which allowed people with cable TV to buy a special hook-up to see individual shows. It was called Pay Per View and the McMahons were the first promoters to embrace it. The McMahons sold $1.6 million worth of tickets to WrestleMania III, but $10 million worth of PPV hook-ups. From there it was off to the races, with the WWF soon putting on a dozen PPV events a year. It would not be much of a stretch to say that the entire modern cable on-demand structure dates from WrestleMania III. In 1999 the McMahons took their company public and became instant billionaires.

It is impossible to fully understand the division of labor within the company. Vince McMahon has always been its public face and is largely believed to be the big-picture visionary. Linda McMahon’s roles—as president, chief operating officer, and finally chief executive officer—have been mostly behind the scenes. In 1989, for instance, she lobbied the New Jersey legislature to move the WWF from the category of “sport” to “entertainment”—an admission that wrestling is staged. This canny maneuver exempted the company from a 10 percent tax on tickets to legitimate sporting events.

Among those who care about professional wrestling—such people exist—there is much debate over whether the McMahons have been good or bad for wrestling. But that question is a little like asking if P.T. Barnum was good for the circus. At some point the McMahons—particularly Vince—became professional wrestling, and it is no longer possible to imagine what the industry would have been like without them.

This is not to say that the McMahons turn everything they touch to gold. There were plenty of missteps through the years, from money-losing wrestling movies to a still-born WWF perfume to a failed World BodyBuilding Federation. Their most high-profile failure was an attempt to create a rival to the National Football League; the XFL folded after 10 games in 2001.

But the McMahons have always rebounded from their setbacks. And Linda McMahon is on the rise in Connecticut. In January, polls had Blumenthal as much as +41 against McMahon. By May, Blumenthal’s lead was in the 20s. In June, both camps released internal polls showing his lead in the mid-teens.

Politically, McMahon is a good fit for Connecticut. She’s moderate, being both pro-choice and pro-TARP, and no one will confuse her with a Tea Party candidate. She’s positioning her campaign to focus on unemployment and fiscal discipline, two areas where she can legitimately claim expertise, since she ran a company which created thousands of jobs over the years, but always with an eye toward tight budgets. In these respects, today’s WWE should serve her well.

But if the WWE is McMahon’s calling card, it’s also her chief weakness. The WWE may be a billion-dollar company, but the success is accompanied by some unpleasant history, ranging from charges of drug use and sexual misconduct to complaints of business double-dealing. The scandals are numerous and have been heavily detailed in investigative articles and books, though they are hotly disputed by the McMahons. Linda McMahon’s biggest concern, however, isn’t wrestling world gossip. It’s steroids.

Wrestling in general, and the WWE in particular, has a long history with steroids. In court testimony, Hulk Hogan once estimated that as many as 80 percent of wrestlers used steroids during the 1980s. In 1991, Bruno Sammartino quipped, “There was a joke: If you did not test positive for steroids, you were fired.”

Steroids were not always illegal. It wasn’t until 1988 that steroid distribution was criminalized, and 1991 that steroids were reclassified as controlled substances. Even after these changes in the law, however, wrestlers found doctors to prescribe them. One of these was a Pennsylvania physician named George Zahorian.

He worked as the house doctor at many of the WWE events the McMahons put on over the years. In 1989, the FBI began investigating him for steroid trafficking. In 1991 he was convicted on 12 counts of distributing controlled substances and sent to prison. In the course of the investigation, the FBI discovered numerous Federal Express receipts from Zahorian to dozens of people in the WWE. Some of the shipments were sent directly to the company’s headquarters in Stamford. Some of them were addressed to Vince McMahon.

Following the Zahorian conviction, a federal prosecutor in New York pursued McMahon. By 1993, prosecutors had convened a grand jury and were rolling through the WWE’s headquarters with subpoenas on a regular basis. In November, they indicted Vince McMahon on three counts of conspiring to distribute steroids. It remains unclear why a New York prosecutor was pushing the case since the alleged acts mostly took place in Connecticut and the chief witness, Zahorian, was in Pennsylvania. If the Connecticut and Pennsylvania authorities didn’t think they had enough evidence to pursue McMahon, then New York probably shouldn’t have done so either. McMahon took the government to trial and beat the charges. Two of them were dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, and McMahon was found not guilty on the third.

Linda McMahon’s steroid problem, however, isn’t a question of legality. And it’s not, as steroids usually are in sports such as baseball, about “fairness,” with people worried that roided-up athletes had an advantage over clean ones. The problem is that over the last few decades, professional wrestlers who worked for the WWE have been dropping dead at a terrifying rate.

Some of the deaths are more notable than others. In 2007, WWE star Chris Benoit killed his wife and son before committing suicide. Benoit was 40. (Steroids were found in his house.) Eddie Guerrero, another former WWE champ, was found dead in a hotel room. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 38. Bam Bam Bigelow, Mike Awesome, Crash Holly, Umaga, Yokozuna, Brian Pillman, Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude, Big Boss Man, Earthquake, Curt Hennig, Hercules, Big John Studd, Road Warrior Hawk, Chris Kanyon, Andrew “Test” Martin—all of these former WWE stars have died in recent years. None was older than 46. This is a partial list.

In 2004, USA Today did a study of the death rates of professional wrestlers. They found that between 1997 and 2004 about 1,000 people under the age of 45 worked in professional wrestling (this included not just the WWE, but many minor circuits). During that period, 65 of them—1 in 15—died. Keith Pinckard, a medical examiner who tracks pro wrestling deaths, has calculated that wrestlers have a death rate 7 times higher than the general population and are 12 times more likely to die from heart disease than other Americans in the same age groups.

Steroids—and the accompanying prescription drugs many wrestlers take to cope with the chronic body pain they develop—have long been part of the wrestling lifestyle. Explaining the common use of steroids and pain pills, one wrestler told USA Today, “It’s part of the job. If you want to be a wrestler, you have to be a big guy, and you have to perform in pain. If you choose to do neither, pick another profession.” The same argument has often been made about professional football, where large men do long-term damage to their bodies. But USA Today’s study showed that professional wrestlers are 20 times more likely than professional football players to die before the age of 45.

The question that lingers is the level of the McMahons’ involvement in wrestling’s steroids problem. Were they ignorant of what their employees were doing, or were they complicit in it? During the McMahon trial, former WWE wrestler Kevin Wacholz testified that Vince McMahon pushed him to take steroids as part of his employment. “I suggest you go on the gas,” Wacholz recalled McMahon telling him. When Wacholz demurred, he claimed that McMahon insisted, saying, “Well, life’s not fair. The ball’s in your court.”

During the trial, the prosecution produced a memo from Linda McMahon to one of her deputies, Pat Patterson. Dated December 1, 1989, it instructed Patterson to fire Zahorian and warn him that the feds might be investigating: “Although you and I discussed before about continuing to have Zahorian at our events as the doctor on call, I think that is now not a good idea,” she wrote. “Vince agreed, and would like for you to call Zahorian and to tell him not to come to any more of our events and to also clue him in on any action that the Justice Department is thinking of taking.” Patterson called Zahorian who, according to his lawyer, immediately began moving the records about the wrestlers he was supplying to his lawyer’s office.

In 1991, after Zahorian was convicted, the McMahons instituted a rigorous steroid testing program for the WWE. In 1996, they suspended it. Linda McMahon would later explain to a congressional investigation that they canceled testing because “It just wasn’t cost effective for us to continue to do it.” After Guerrero’s high-profile death in 2005, the company started testing again.

It’s one thing to be the head of a successful company. It’s another to be head of a successful company whose current and former employees die at headline-worthy rates. In a recent interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Linda McMahon was asked about whether steroids might have contributed to some of the untimely passings in her industry. Her response:

There’s some evidence of muscle disease, or cardiac disease, but it’s really hard to know because you didn’t know the condition of the performer’s heart, or whatever, prior to. So I still don’t think we know the long-term effects of steroids. They are continuing to study it more and more, but I don’t believe there are a lot of studies out there today that are conclusive.

Clarifying McMahon’s stance, spokesman Ed Patru says that the candidate “believes steroids can have long-term negative effects—both physical and psychiatric—and those negative effects are exacerbated with abuse.” And he offers a more cogent explanation of the WWE’s progress over the years. Wrestling was, Patru argues, a Wild West, rough-and-tumble world in the 1960s and 1970s. However unorthodox the industry appears today, though, it is still a world apart from how it was before the McMahons took over. “A cultural change occurred,” Patru says, “and it did not happen by accident. This cultural change has come about because of a concerted focus on health and well-being and responsible living, and it was made possible through a strong and responsible corporate structure. No company drove this cultural change more than WWE, and it occurred because of Linda’s leadership.”

It’s unclear whether this explanation will be sufficient to put the issue to rest. McMahon’s chief rival for the Republican nomination was Rob Simmons, a retired U.S. Army colonel and three-term member of the House of Representatives. He began the race as the frontrunner and tried mightily to get people to notice what had happened with steroids in the WWE. McMahon breezed past him in the polls before winning the overwhelming endorsement of the Connecticut Republican elite at the state party’s nominating convention in May, after which Simmons suspended his campaign. It’s hard to imagine that Blumenthal won’t try the same tactic, putting large sums of money behind it.

In a political environment so remarkably unstable, it’s tough to know exactly what will, or won’t, matter to voters this year. It’s a classic wrestling tease. And we’ll have to wait until November for the reveal.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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