February 5, 2008
Column: 'Fifth Estate' piece sheds needed light on Benoit tragedy
By STEVE SIMMONS - Toronto Sun
What caused Chris Benoit to do the unspeakable, killing his young son, his wife and eventually himself on a tragic Atlanta weekend less than eight months ago?
Was it depression? Steroid rage? A cocktail combination of pills, drugs and untreated concussions?
Or all of the above?
Wednesday night, on the excellent investigative series The Fifth Estate, the life and death of the Canadian wrestler, Benoit -- along with the convoluted and troubled life of so many of his professional wrestling colleagues -- is examined by former Canadian Football League player turned reporter Bob McKeown.
The answers aren't necessarily certain. The theories remain just theories. But the story of how it happened -- obtained in a copy of tomorrow's script -- why it happened, and quite possibly what caused this tragedy of life, sport and entertainment to occur in the backdrop of so many other catastrophes at least offers explanations for the Benoit murders.
"Benoit's brain looked like the brain of an individual suffering from a specific type of dementia normally seen in people in their 80s or 90s," Dr. Bennett Omalu told The Fifth Estate. "We don't think it (the murders) was steroid rage. We think it's a different syndrome than that."
The investigation of Benoit's brain began with a rather strange telephone call. Mike Benoit, Chris' father, picked up the phone one day and the voice on the other end asked: "Could we have Chris Benoit's brain?"
Mike Benoit was stunned. "And I kept looking at the phone thinking, is this is the National Enquirer?" the father said. "Like, who is this?"
The brain made its way to Dr. Julian Bailes, the former team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to his colleague, Dr. Omalu.
After studying the brain, the doctors believe that an abnormal protein, usually found in the brains of elderly people with dementia, and rarely in middle-aged men, was evident, leading to the murder/suicide. And they believe -- you can judge this for yourself -- that Benoit was not responsible for his actions.
The Fifth Estate reports that the unusual protein in the brain is found in maybe one in 100 cases. But in a study done by Dr. Bailes, examining the brains of former pro football players who killed themselves or died unusually, including the legendary centre Mike Webster, found similar protein was found in every single case.
For the record, Vince McMahon, creator and boss of World Wrestling Entertainment, rejects the doctors' notions. In McMahon's view, Benoit could not have functioned as well as he did if he was suffering from the dementia the doctors claim he was.
McMahon, who previously spoke with CNN, would not be interviewed for The Fifth Estate piece.
The better question, maybe, for wrestling and football and doctors is, what part does an untreated concussion play in any of this? And to that, what role, if any, does rampant long-term steroid usage have on the brain? And what does the combination of the two equate to?
What is clear, as clear as any of this can be, is that Benoit was first beneficiary then victim of his lifestyle of choice and also of his own desire for success.
The fact that pro wrestlers die young isn't really new. That's almost assumed. The fact that their death rate is seven to 10 times higher than the general population of similar age is however, startling.
"If you read their life story, you'll see a very common thread," Dr. Bailes said of the prematurely dead athletes. "A failure in their personal life, failure in their business life, depression, suicide attempts and then suicide completion. So they had a very common thread."
The father of Chris Benoit needs something to hope for. "I can't bring my son back, can't bring my daughter-in-law back, can't bring my grandson back. But I can make changes going forward," he said. "The wrestling industry will change and they'll change dramatically because of what happened to Chris Benoit."
He believes that to be true. Maybe he needs to believe that. History would suggest otherwise.
Steve Simmons is a columnist for the Toronto Sun newspaper. He can be emailed at email@example.com.