Kelly Klein Case Places Spotlight on Ring of Honor’s Handling of Concussions

The Week in Wrestling: ROH’s Kelly Klein has fought a protracted battle with the company over its handling of in-ring head injuries.
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Kelly Klein Not Giving Up Fight for Wrestler Safety

Wrestler Kelly Klein with the Ring of Honor women's championship

Ring of Honor wrestler Kelly Klein suffered a concussion while defending her Women of Honor title on October 26. In all likelihood, that will be Klein’s final appearance for Ring of Honor. Due to her concussion, Klein has not received clearance to wrestle.

Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff also informed Klein in November that her contract with Ring of Honor will not be renewed when it expires on Dec. 31, putting an end to negotiations that began in July for a new deal, after Klein, per an email from Koff, breached her contract by “sharing confidential documents and emails with another contractor.”

“I do not regret speaking out,” said Klein, who is still recovering from her concussion. “I wanted to build something positive at Ring of Honor, I wanted to make improvements. I loved it there and I wanted to create change to make the environment safer.”

Klein suffered her concussion in a match against Lana Austin at the Newport Centre in Newport, Wales, during Ring of Honor’s fall tour of the United Kingdom. She did not receive immediate medical assistance following her concussion.

“No medical personnel were ringside,” said Klein. “No medical personnel were in the immediate backstage area.”

Working with both an opponent and a referee she also was unfamiliar with, Klein finished the match—wrestling for approximately six minutes following the concussion—then laid on the locker room floor for approximately an hour until she received attention from the medic.

“The issue was not my opponent or the referee,” said Klein. “The issue is that no one received training or protocol to recognize what to do when something is wrong. The problem is that no one has the protocol, no one has seen the protocol, and no one is in charge of making sure the protocol is followed.”

Concussions are a frightening part of pro wrestling. The in-ring product is presented in a physical, realistic manner, and there is always a potential for injuries, including ones to the brain.

WWE, the worldwide leader in pro wrestling, has a thorough, detailed concussion protocol posted on its corporate web page. The protocol is designed to help identify signs of a concussion or to identify those who have suffered a concussion, all in an effort to prevent further injury.

Klein is still recovering from her concussion. Despite multiple requests, no one from Ring of Honor has shown Klein the company’s concussion protocol, which an ROH spokesperson informed Newsweek has been in place since 2016.

Sports Illustrated spoke with Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff about Klein’s concussion and ROH’s concussion protocol.

“It is not posted, we don’t share documents like that publicly,” said Koff regarding the concussion protocol. “When [Klein suffered her concussion] on October 26, there was a medic there, hired by Ring of Honor, and she got immediate attention once it was known she was feeling anything.”

Klein expressed continued frustration that she has been unable to view the protocol, especially after suffering the concussion on a Ring of Honor canvas.

“It’s impossible to follow something we’ve never seen,” said Klein. “I have asked, at minimum three times, to see the concussion protocol. I still have not seen one, so I don’t know if one even exists.”

Koff, who not present for the overseas tour when Klein suffered her concussion, was asked if making the protocol available to talent, as well as stating the name of the neurologist consulted, would help create a safer environment for his wrestlers.

“The protocol is just this—we recognize the dangers that are inherent in professional wrestling,” said Koff. “More specifically, the possibility exists of a wrestler suffering a concussion during a match, and we take all injuries very, very seriously. When we are alerted or when we feel there is an injury, we immediately defer to the medical professional on staff.”

There are members of the roster, such as Silas Young, who recently spoke positively about the way Ring of Honor handles injuries. But that does not change Klein’s concussion, which was a situation where she faced further risk by not having a known protocol to follow.

“I wasn’t there, but I was made aware that Kelly did not realize she was concussed until sometime after the match,” said Koff. “That hour could very well be a true lapse of time. But as soon as she reported she was concussed, she received immediate attention. Kelly declined the option to go to the hospital at that point.

“Ring of Honor had management present at the event, including the hired operating agent for the tour. I will tell you that as soon I learned about it, I texted her and she told me she appreciated my text and told me she was fine.”

A Ring of Honor spokesperson told SI that, according to its policy, “talent reports any injuries or symptoms to a match agent or producer. Medical attention is then provided immediately.”

The company does not rely solely on the performers to self-report their injuries, though.

“Referees and other producers are always on the lookout for potential injuries in a match and follow up immediately,” an ROH spokesperson said. 

It is possible to suffer a concussion and not realize it. The signs and symptoms of a concussion, according to the Mayo Clinic, can be subtle and may not show up immediately, explaining why Klein did not self-diagnose her concussion.

“I remember a moment in the match when I hit my head,” said Klein. “I remember laying on the mat and thinking, ‘Can I get up?’ I did continue, and I remember moments where I was looking at my opponent and not knowing what was next, and not being able to communicate that or know where I was. I remember taking an elbow to the face because I wasn’t quick enough to protect myself.

“Then I remember being in the back after the match and trying to talk with people, but I couldn’t get through one thought. I laid down on the floor and I didn’t feel well. I couldn’t recognize people’s faces. I didn’t think much time had passed, but I was later told that I was sitting on the floor for an hour before I received help.”

Since Ring of Honor’s concussion protocol is not available to be viewed, it is impossible to know whether or not it was properly followed.

“I think it was followed the way we have it designed to be followed,” said Koff. “Once a performer indicates they are concussed or have any kind of injury, it goes immediately to the medical professional on-site.

“If you feel any recognizable symptoms, including headaches or neck pains that do not go away; difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions; slowness in thinking, speaking, acting, or reading; getting lost or easily confused; lightheadedness, dizziness, or loss of balance; nausea; increased sensitivity to lights, sounds, or distractions; blurred vision or eyes that tire easily or ringing in the ears, they are to seek medical attention immediately.”

Considering the lapse of time that passed before Klein received medical attention, Koff was asked if specific mistakes were made by Ring of Honor officials.

“I don’t have a comment,” said Koff. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t see any of that. I can’t answer any of that.”

Ring of Honor is reimbursing Klein for medical bills related to the concussion. Koff was asked whether Ring of Honor will continue to reimburse Klein for treatments after her contract expires on December 31.

“I don’t think the precedent has been set, so we’re going to find out,” said Koff. “My intentions are to make sure she’s whole through this.”

Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., is co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. He is also a former WWE talent who suffered a concussion in the ring, but continued to wrestle, which ultimately cost him his career due to post-concussion syndrome.

Sports Illustrated reached Nowinski, who is currently abroad in Australia, via email, asking his insight on Klein’s concussion and the fact that Klein still has not viewed the concussion protocol.

“It is important to have talent educated on the risks of performing with a concussion and aware of the concussion protocol,” Nowinski said in a email, adding that he is looking further into the situation.

Nowinski was also asked whether there is any precedent regarding a company paying medical bills for a concussed talent even after their contract expires.

“My experience with WWE was that they covered all of my medical bills related to my injury,” responded Nowinski.

To be clear, Klein was not fired for having a concussion. But she was informed by Koff, while still recovering from her concussion, that her services were no longer required by Ring of Honor.

Klein tweeted her support of Adam Birch, better known as former WWE star Joey Mercury, who quit Ring of Honor on October 25 because he wanted better treatment for talent. Birch’s most recent stretch with Ring of Honor as an independent contractor began in January. He coached five-to-eight nights each month at the Ring of Honor Dojo, as well as acted in a role akin to talent relations with responsibilities as a creative consultant, television producer and road agent.

“In my role as talent, I was basically viewed as management,” said Birch. “I never had a defined role, and that’s why I had to quit. If I didn’t, I would have been compliant to all the mistreatment of the talent that I saw.”

Since leaving the company, Birch has been actively posting claims of negligence against Ring of Honor management on Twitter, particularly toward ROH General Manager Greg Gilleland, and has provided proof of his claims in the form of screenshots of texts and emails.

Birch quit Ring of Honor the day before Klein suffered her concussion, but stayed abroad for the remainder of the overseas tour. As soon as Birch learned Klein was concussed, despite no longer working for Ring of Honor, he immediately offered assistance.

“I knew she wouldn’t receive any care, proper or otherwise, from management,” said Birch. “She needed to be monitored and not get on the bus for the October 27 show, nor go to South Africa for independent shows in the following days. She needed to go home.”

Birch does not believe that Ring of Honor has a concussion protocol.

“I would have been made aware of a concussion protocol,” said Birch. “They don’t have one. For ROH to claim they have a concussion protocol is ridiculous. When you’re in WWE as an agent, or a producer as they are now known, you need to be CPR certified. There is nothing like that in Ring of Honor.”

Klein met in-person with Koff at Ring of Honor headquarters last month, hoping to see the concussion protocol as well as discuss increasing safety for wrestlers and the difference in pay between genders.

“I suggested that we could develop independent contractor standards, similar to an employee handbook, but it would apply to independent contractors, and Joe Koff told me that my contract was my handbook,” said Klein. “I said that the contract did not have any information on how we handle these situations or who I talk to. Joe said, ‘If I was there, I’d always tell you to seek medical help.’ But Joe wasn’t there. Our general manager did not see me. No one from management [at the venue] told me to go to the hospital.”

Koff confirmed that the meeting took place in November, before Klein was informed that her contract would be allowed to expire and that negotiations regarding a new deal were over.

“I met with her in Baltimore and we had a nice conversation,” said Koff. “She made recommendations that I think were valid, but at no time did she show any remorse.

“Without remorse or without some kind of apology to me personally, I’ll just say this, we’re out of alignment. I exercised the right not to renew. I feel terrible that she was concussed. We’re not abandoning her, she’s still under contract.”

Koff was asked why the company did not choose to work with Klein to improve concussion protocol and enhance safety for talent.

“We’ve always had a great dialogue with Kelly in the past,” said Klein. “Issues could have been easily addressed with myself or Greg. That’s the truth. She chose to share private emails and information that was then used to denigrate this company’s image, which was a clear violation of her contract. Yet, through it all, and in empathy for what happened, we didn’t fire her or exercise a breach of contract, which we could have done. We just chose not to extend or renew her contract.

“I think right now, due to what has transpired—and I think this could have been settled with the normal way that we would settle with any talent, open door-open dialogue—it didn’t happen this way. I just feel we’re out of alignment right now. If there is a way to realign in the future, then the conversation opens up.”

This is a situation where both parties suffer. Klein is concussed, not to mention frustrated that she has yet to see the concussion protocol. This is also a terrible look for Koff and Ring of Honor as a whole, effectively giving a pink slip to a concussed talent.

“I had hoped that management would take the opportunity to recognize some of the gaps and opportunities for improvement, and work to implement some positive change,” said Klein. “But they chose a different route.”

Klein’s concussion could have served as the spark that increased concussion awareness throughout Ring of Honor, positively impacting all talent and setting an example for promotions smaller than WWE.

Instead, a situation now exists where Klein is out of work come Jan. 1. She is no longer able to create positive change for safety for her fellow ROH talent. Klein suffered further frustration on Saturday morning when she noticed that Ring of Honor’s Twitter page had blocked her.

“That was not a company decision,” said Koff. “It was a lapse of judgment from one of our administrators who emotionally wanted to prevent our company from further attack [from people on social media supporting Klein]. We never would condone this, and we apologized immediately privately to Kelly and remedied the situation as soon as I found out about it.”

Koff was also asked if there is any chance that Ring of Honor could repair the relationship with Klein before her contract expires on Dec. 31.

“I don’t know,” said Koff. “I really don’t know.”

As for Klein, the reigning Women of Honor champion expressed gratitude for those who have supported her following the concussion—and reiterated that her goal is to make wrestling a safer place for talent.

“Support from fans has really helped me and been something I’ve needed,” said Klein, who has displayed poise and grace throughout a difficult time. “I’m very grateful for that.

“My goal will continue to be to make wrestling better and safer. Talent needs to be educated and empowered. It’s important to educate ourselves to protect ourselves, and protect each other. Even if I’m not part of Ring of Honor, I still want it to be better for the people there. Even if Ring of Honor is letting my contract expire and excluding me from the company, I still want improvements for the talent there.”

The (Online) Week in Wrestling

  • CM Punk offered his own (pro-Will Ospreay) feeling on Morrison’s tweet. 
  • Seth Rollins appeared on last night’s WWE Backstage, and his interview was extremely well done, especially the parts where he talked about a disconnect with parts of the audience that, as he stated, are not unlike prior disconnects between the audience and John Cena, Roman Reigns, and even Bret Hart.
  • The New Day’s Kofi Kingston and Big E had a WWE.com interview that featured Vince McMahon, which should have instead been aired on Friday’s SmackDown.
  • The New Day also started their new podcast this week, and it offers some great insight from three of WWE’s top performers.
  • Bray Wyatt’s new WWE Universal title is available for only $6,499.99.
  • MJF is not only one of wrestling’s top heels, but is also a master at the art of social media.
  • The Dark Order videos are fantastic, but right now, their in-ring work does not generate the same excitement as the videos.
  • The Butcher and The Blade made their debut last week in All Elite Wrestling, attacking Cody Rhodes… if you’re looking to read more about “The Butcher of Buffalo” Andy Williams, better known as the 6’3”, 265-pound mustachioed monster who wears a monocle in tribute to G.I. Joe villain Doctor Mindbender, he was featured in The Week in Wrestling in April.
  • Kenny Omega successfully defended his AAA Mega championship against Dragon Lee on Sunday at AAA’s TripleMania Regia show in Monterrey, Mexico, and it appears his next challenger will be Brian Cage. 

WWE Category Part of Last Friday’s Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! unveiled a WWE category on Friday’s edition, challenging its contestants to answer questions about the Slammy Awards.

Jeopardy! makes it a point to cover as broad a range of topics as possible on the show, and its head writer Billy Wisse, who was interviewed by Sports Illustrated last December, grew up a wrestling fan.

A sample of the content from Friday included, “No winner for 1987’s song of the year—Sika ate the envelope—but this WWE head honcho was nominated and did perform ‘Stand Back.’”

If you answered, “Who is Vince McMahon?”, which none of the contestants did, you would have been correct for $1,000.

James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! great who put together an historic 32-game win streak, is not surprised to see WWE questions on the iconic game show.

“I was excited and surprised to see the WWE Slammy category, though I was disappointed it didn’t make it into one of my games,” said Holzhauer. “I’m definitely a fan of pro wrestling in general and AEW in particular.”

Holzhauer is also a wrestling fan, even using Scott Steiner’s infamous math promo for a little playful trash talk toward one of his opponents for the upcoming Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time multi-night tournament beginning on January 7.

“As soon as the G.O.A.T. tournament was announced, I thought of the Steiner math promo as the ultimate example of trash talk in a three-person match,” said Holzhauer. “It’s too bad there aren’t more promos I can appropriate that are well-known by non-marks.”

Tweet of the Week 

Why should it matter what gender wrestles in the main event? If a women’s match deserves to close out a card, then it should be the main event.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.