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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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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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