November 13, 2007
Guest column: Hitman is off-target on steroid issue
By IRVIN MUCHNICK - For SLAM! Wrestling

As talk of Congressional hearings picks up steam again with the broadcast of CNN's investigative report, one obvious voice remains strangely muted. It is that of Bret Hart -- not only an icon of his sport and his country, but also a newly minted runaway bestselling Canadian author.

Many will disagree with my low assessment of Hart's outspokenness and efficacy on drugs and death in pro wrestling. After all, the superbly written and documented Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling is a page-turning tell-all of both the sunny and the dark sides of a legendary career. And we all know Hart has had no love for Vince McMahon since the 1997 Montreal screwjob and the 1999 stunt fall death of Bret's brother Owen.

Still, in the charged public conversation that followed Chris Benoit's June rampage, I find somewhat overrated the idea that Hart is speaking out and proactively serving the cause of reform. Those who feel otherwise, I submit, are succumbing to Bret's considerable image-shaping skills, or simply to how low the bar is set when it comes to judging ex-wrestlers' willingness to forgo "protecting the business."

True, Hart has been an advocate of a sort. The sum of his advocacy, however, has been toward stating that wrestlers need a union. While I'm all for that concept, I don't believe platitudes by retired performers can substitute for the hard work of organising active ones. As a one-time assistant director of the (U.S.) National Writers Union, I know first-hand how hard it is to pull together populations of independent contractors. Wrestlers are even more narcissistic and narrow-minded than freelance writers, and the upsides of their dreams of fame and riches are wrapped in even more individualism and stubbornness. So let's get real for a moment. Wrestling will never have a talent union until the current superstars on top spearhead one -- which is very close to saying wrestlers will never have a union, period.

Indeed, I think a misguided focus on a union has the danger of creating "fool's gold" -- a "company union" controlled by management for PR purposes. The only effective labor organisation is the kind emerging from a base line of motivation from within. On the liberated terrain of retirement, Hart enjoys a valuable bully pulpit. But for the same reason, he is no longer one of the boys.

As a practical matter, what's up for discussion these days is something else: the failure -- the miserable, the literally lethal failure -- of internal drug testing. This has created an overdue call for Congressional hearings, which in turn could spur reversal of the rampant deregulation of the 1980s.

Regulation, especially for the purpose of administering toothful drug testing, would be no panacea, whether conducted by athletic commissions or run by any other public entity. A chapter of my book Wrestling Babylon reports on the buffoonery of the old regime of state government hangers-on whose main purpose seemed to be to provide a comical veneer of sporting legitimacy. Kayfabe is dead and no one seriously wants it back.

But for all its problems, outside regulation would add the accountability that is lacking in WWE-commissioned drug testing. No matter how sincere David Black's Nashville lab was when he took on its administration, the fact remains that his ultimate clients are not the wrestlers, but rather convoluted interpretations of their well-being as filtered through McMahon's agenda and business interests. With off-the-charts life-expectancy actuarials, which were in evidence well before the Benoit case -- and which are now dramatized by it -- the industry has surrendered the benefit of the doubt.

On June 29, four days after the Benoit bodies were discovered, I found myself with Bret Hart on a panel of CNN Headline's Nancy Grace. Respectfully, I noted that Hart was one of the great wrestlers of all time. Referring to his brother (whose death, of course, was not steroid-related) and his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, along with Benoit and many other close friends, I called Hart "a one-man Zelig of death in wrestling" and said his whitewashing of the drug angle with Benoit was wrong. In response, Hart filibustered. A short time later the Benoit toxicology report was released, and we all know what it showed. (And not long after that, yet another close friend of Hart's, Brian Adams, OD'd.)

OK, maybe Bret felt then that it was unseemly to frame the Benoit tragedy in those terms in the midst of a media frenzy. Then how do we explain the line he has taken during his book tour? In one of his most prominent interviews, Hart talks about his own steroid use and how he believes it rescued his career by at least keeping him in the game at a point when only big men got a second look from WWF. All well and good -- but it's not accompanied by the forward-looking observation that, post-Benoit, pro wrestling must be forced to adopt the changes that will ensure that the Bret Harts and Chris Benoits never again have to inflict pharmaceutical damage on themselves just to have a fighting chance to succeed.

On the November 4 edition of Wrestler Observer Live, Hart was asked about WWE's releasing his nephew Teddy Hart. Bret launched into a thorough analysis of Teddy's performance style and the adjustments he will need to make in order to make it in the big time. However, when Bret was asked about the drug suspension of another nephew, Harry Smith (Davey Boy's son), a cat got his tongue. "I don't know anything about it," Hart mumbled to Dave Meltzer and Bryan Alvarez (who unfortunately fanned on a follow-up).

By contrast, when Chris Jericho -- another bestselling author -- was asked in an interview about the prospect of outside scrutiny and regulation, Jericho made the point that, no matter how much it might be feared by people inside the business, it very well might prove to be a good thing. Previously, I had been disappointed by Jericho's July appearance on Larry King Live, where he came off as an apologist for WWE, if not a fawning job applicant. Now I give Jericho credit for attacking, rather than denying, that tough question -- especially since he's doing so on the apparent eve of a new WWE run. If Jericho, who is still active, can see the light, then so should Hart, from the comfort of retirement and with the chance to do so much good with just a few well-chosen words.

The instant issue is not Hart's ego. Nor is it the history of his problems with McMahon. It is the opportunity to save lives, pure and simple.

In wrestling, timing is everything. Inside the ring, no one's was ever crisper than Bret Hart's. Outside the ring, as an elder statesman with unrivaled literary and media clout, his time has come to summon the passion and candor of other former WWF/WWE champions, Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham. Without further delay, the Hitman should step up to the plate, call out the "wellness policy" for the farce it is and pave the way for an out-of-control industry to get a sensible dose of oversight.

RELATED LINKS

  • More on Bret Hart
  • Chris Benoit double murder/suicide news section

    Irvin Muchnick is author of Wrestling Babylon and co-author (with Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy and SLAM! Wrestling producer Greg Oliver) of Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport, and is working on a book about the Benoit case for publication next year. He blogs at http://muchnick.net/babylon.


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