In November 2005, 38-year-old professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero died in a Minneapolis hotel room due to what a coroner later ruled as heart disease, complicated by an enlarged heart resulting from a history of anabolic steroid use.
In the aftermath of that tragedy, WWE chairman Vince McMahon announced a new drug policy, one that would give "no special consideration" to anyone and would involve frequent, random drug tests performed by an independent agency.
In the wake of this past weekend's murder/suicide case, in which steroids were found in the home of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, one has to wonder just how well the WWE's new policy is working.
If steroids are common in pro baseball and football, then the drugs are rampant in pro wrestling, which places an enormous emphasis on the size of its athletes. Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura admitted to using steroids when he was in the WWE and Hulk Hogan has admitted to taking steroids for 13 years. In 1993, McMahon was charged with conspiring to distribute steroids to his wrestlers, one of whom testified that McMahon had directed him to use steroids. McMahon was acquitted by a jury in U.S. District Court the following year.
Moreover, Bruno Sammartino refused to be inducted into the wrestling hall of fame in 2005 because he believed wrestlers were pumping themselves with steroids. More recently, a story by SI.com reporters revealed that former WWE champion Kurt Angle and other wrestlers allegedly received a wide variety of anabolic steroids supplied by Applied, the Mobile, Ala., compounding pharmacy that was raided last fall by investigators.
Of course, in wrestling, steroids are just the tip of the iceberg. While telecasts of Monday Night Raw or Friday Night Smackdown might give the impression that these athletes only work one or two days per week, the reality is that most are out there for five or six days. They perform high risk maneuvers, sometimes crashing through tables and taking steel chairs to their foreheads.
In the 1999 documentary Beyond The Mat, the wrestler known as Triple H was seen walking up the ramp following a particularly brutal match. As soon as he disappeared behind the curtain, a chiropractor grabbed him, strapped him to a bed and pushed each of his vertebrae back into place. To do so the chiropractor had to push his feet against the wall to apply enough pressure to realign the wrestler's back. Needless to say, there is some pain there.
And when Tylenol doesn't do the trick for pain relief, some wrestlers switch to a stronger drug -- and the results are often disastrous. In 1997, Brian Pillman was found dead amidst a sea of empty bottles of prescription painkillers. In 2003, Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig died of a cocaine overdose. Guerrero, who had a long history of drug abuse, was using narcotic painkillers. The list goes on and on.
That's why McMahon's declarations of cleaning up the sport seem to be about as genuine as O.J.'s quest to find the real killer. Size sells, and until people tire of seeing 300-pound men being choked and slammed through tables, steroids will continue to be readily available to professional wrestlers. Unless, of course, McMahon is forced to take stiffer action.
His three-hour "tribute" to Benoit on Monday night was a travesty. I can't speak to the man Chris Benoit was before last weekend, but the man he finished as was a murderer who took his wife away from her family and his 7-year-old son away from the world. If Congress -- which has involved itself in the fight against steroid abuse before -- is looking for something to do, there is a billion dollar industry with an enormous fan base that needs fixing.
Call professional wrestling sports or call it entertainment, but whatever you call it, realize that people are dying in it. They are dying because they believe bigger muscles lead to bigger paychecks. But no one is telling them that they can't spend a nickel of it if they are dead.