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KELLER: McMahon freaks out during HBO interview on drug deaths - 1 Yr Ago

Jun 25, 2004 - 12:20:00 PM
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The following is a flashback to the Torch Newsletter's "Cover Story" and "End Notes" features one year ago this week looking at HBO's feature on drug deaths in pro wrestling and Vince McMahon's response to probing questions. For information on becoming a Torch VIP member where you can have access to hundreds of Torch Newsletter abck issues from the '90s and the latest six week's worth of Torch Newsletters, Click Here!.

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
Cover Story and End Notes Analysis
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #764
Cover dated: June 28, 2003


Headline: "HBO Real Sports looks at drug-related deaths of pro wrestlers"

After months of research, HBO's investigative sports program, "Real Sports," tackled the issue of drug-related deaths in pro wrestling. Bryant Gumble described the alarming frequency of drug deaths by wrestlers as "a disturbing reality that is quietly disturbing those between the ropes."

The feature began with home video footage of the late Louie Spicolli stumbling around a hotel hallway in his white brief underwear looking for his hotel room. Reporter Arman Keteyian said two years after the footage was taken, he died at age 27 of a suspected overdose of prescription pills and alcohol. Footage aired of Brian Pillman's funeral as Keteyian said that since 1997, more than 60 pro wrestlers across the world have died at age 45 and under. "Drug overdoses (picture of Bobby Duncum Jr.), heart attacks (Terry Gordy), car accidents (Junkyard Dog), suicides, and everything in between at a rate 400 percent higher than normal." It showed Curt Hennig, Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith, and Brian Pillman among those who have died.

Roddy Piper, who was the main wrestler interviewed for the feature, said, "Everybody's dead. They all died young and nobody cares about it They take them and they screw them up so much, they being the rash of promoters I've gone through in my 33 years." He talked about many of the injuries he has suffered over the years. Keteyian said they have talked to over a dozen current and former wrestlers who echoed Piper's words, saying the lifestyle on the road takes it's toll. "Travel, steroids, pain, pills, and partying."

Del Wilkes, who wrestled as The Patriot, said he went to the ring every night the last six years of his career jacked up on pills, if not coke. He said he took up to 100 pain pills a day during his peak usage. "At the time I thought it was perfectly normal because everyone else was doing it," he said. "If there were ten guys sitting in the dressing room, I would say seven or eight were probably living the same way. Alcohol, coke, steroids, pills, yeah."

Piper talked about the deadly combination of pain pills and alcohol. He described the cycle of partying at night, then taking a line of coke to stay up all night to catch an early flight, then needing an upper and some pain pills to get through the match, and "now you come out of the ring, it's 10:30, and you're high, how are you, now what do you want to do? Time to do the cycle all over again." He said he did that cycle nonstop for 20 years.

Keteyian said it is an occupation with "no union, health benefits, or job security." Wilkes said it's easy to fall prey to the lifestyle. Piper blamed promoters for turning a blind eye to abuse while pushing problem wrestlers harder and harder.

"If you can't cut it, get out," said Vince McMahon. "What's wrong with that? It's no different than any other business, by the way. If for some reason you have to rely on illegal drug usage to make it, you're going to self-destruct."

Keteyian said 15 of the 60-plus wrestlers who have died since 1997 worked at one time for McMahon. He added that many worked for WCW, which was owned by Time-Warner, HBO's parent company.

McMahon admitted there was a lot of "Wild West" partying in the '80s which he was part of. "That lifestyle back in the '80s could partially be attributable the way people are acting today. Again, most of us, the smart ones, obviously grew up and grew out of those habits. Certainly all of the entertainment business, it was the Wild West. A lot of individuals unfortunately passed away because of that."

When asked if he knows why they're dying under the age of 45, McMahon got steamed: "Why don't you ask yourself that question. Are you indicating that is my responsibility that these people are dead I would accept no responsibility for their untimely deaths, none whatsoever. You've got that little look on your face that says, Jeez, Vince, how could you possibly say that?'" At Keteyian explained that many were the heart of his organization, Vince mocked him in return and slapped at his notes. "I told you, these individuals worked for my organization at one time. They also worked for other organizations. I'm not responsible for the way the business was then or how they grew up in the business and whatever personal bad habits they developed. Why am I responsible for that? I gave them the opportunity."

They cut away from McMahon's interview. Keteyian's narration then took over. "Certainly nobody blames McMahon or any other organization for these deaths. Indeed, McMahon says he took steps to curb the abusers he was aware of either by sending them to rehab or firing them."

The segment then interviewed Teddy Hart who admitted in order to look like fans are used to seeing, he might take steps to enhance his physique by whatever means necessary. They showed footage of Teddy Hart's cousin and Davey Boy Smith's son, Harry Smith, in action also on a Western Canada indy event.

Piper acknowledged that he returned to WWE because he can't access his pension fund until he's 65. I'm not going to make 65," he said. "Let's just face facts, guys."

Piper concluded: "I hate it. I don't watch myself on TV. I know what that guy is thinking and what that guy is capable of doing. I know what he's thought of. There is nothing nice about that guy at all. That guy being Roddy Piper."

Keteyian talked about his feature with Gumble afterward. Gumble asked if the partying stopped in the '80s. Keteyian said it hasn't because 23 wrestlers alone around the world have died in the last three years. He added that there is testing in WWE "for what Vince says is reasonable cause or just cause." Gumble discussed Wiles, asking why he got out of the business. Keteyian said Wilkes went to prison and treatment before he got out. He said he thinks a government agency needs to intervene and investigate what's going on because it won't happen from within.

EDITORIAL ANALYSIS by Wade Keller

HBO's 15 minute feature called "The Sickness" that aired Tuesday night attempted to take a deep look at the number of wrestlers dying in recent years. Instead of a definitive look at the situation or shedding new light on the subject, it was just another lazy story.

HBO has enough resources that their reporters and research staff should have been able to come up with more definitive numbers than they did regarding deaths in pro wrestling. Saying that 23 wrestlers have died in the past three years as some sort of evidence of an existing problem in pro wrestling doesn't do it for me. How did those 23 wrestlers die? Did 18 of them die in a bus accident in Egypt? Did 20 of them die of old age? Or did 23 die of drug overdoses while working in America? You wouldn't know, and that information is hardly irrelevant to the discussion. HBO's reporter Arman Keteyian either should have had a grasp of which of those deaths was at least somewhat relevant to the discussion at hand - which is the lifestyle of pro wrestlers these days.

Interviewing Roddy Piper as the main wrestler in the feature hurt, too. He is working for WWE again. If he truly believes a problem exists in the industry that is causing him such emotional agony, should he be helping that promotion make money at the same time? It might be easier to swallow if Piper were active behind the scenes in trying to change things from within, but he's not. He keeps to himself. He doesn't attempt to mentor the wrestlers whom he claims are the next generation in danger of the same fate of "20 of his friends" who have died over the years. He's willing to collect a paycheck from WWE while claiming WWE is part of the problem that kills his friends. His rationalization? He needs the job because what's a 49 year old ex-wrestler to do otherwise? Well, get a job in the real world like many other 49 year old adults who have found themselves out of work recently. He might not make $75,000 a year or more, but at least he wouldn't be part of the system that he believes kills his friends.

The story blew threw the variety of deaths that wrestlers have suffered recently, including deaths having nothing to do with current drug usage, such as the retired Junkyard Dog (who died in a car accident).

Stories on deaths in pro wrestling are too important to include flippant statistics, or to rely on obvious hypocrites such as Roddy Piper. When questions are being posed to Vince McMahon about whether he feels culpable for deaths of wrestlers, the stats that preceding that accusation better be spelled out clearly. Tossing around large numbers of wrestler deaths without any attempt to categorize them, and eliminate those unrelated to drugs or the wrestling lifestyle, damaged the credibility to the story.

For instance, HBO could have used its resources to break down the deaths as such: "There have been 60 wrestler deaths in the past six years worldwide, 42 in the U.S., and of those, 22 were full time wrestlers within two years of their deaths whose deaths were either directly related to drugs or drugs were believed to have contributed to the condition that led to their death." Whatever the true stats would have turned out to be, it would have been more relevant to hear hard relevant numbers than vague larger numbers.

Vince McMahon, though, denying any sense of culpability for the wrestler deaths does come across poorly. His response to Keteyian's reaction (bullying him and then slapping at his notes) was much worse. All McMahon has to do when asked that question, from a p.r. (if not humanitarian) standpoint, is to hang his head slightly and say, with a sense of remorse, that he wishes he knew what he could do to stop it. He could then mention that they have done expensive, stringent drug testing in the past, and they now pay close attention to anyone showing signs of abuse and send them to treatment. Point out there have been several successful recent cases of wrestlers who have gone through treatment, and one young popular wrestler was released because he wouldn't agree to go to treatment. He could have said, earnestly, that they have taken steps to reduce the schedule of the wrestlers in order to give them more time to recover from bumps and be with their families. He could have also added that they now offer downside guarantees that give wrestlers the luxury of taking the proper amount of time off to heal injuries without worrying about paying the mortgage or college tuition for their kids. He could have said he loses sleep over the deaths of wrestlers whom he cares deeply about, but he doesn't know what more he can do. He could add that inherently a certain percentage of wrestlers are going to fall prey to peer pressure to party with drugs no matter what he does, and all he can do is attempt to weed it out as best he can, but he can't babysit them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Instead, he reacted with an embarrassing display of defensiveness that embarrassed himself, the sports, his fans, his family, and the clean, dedicated wrestlers who deserve better representation.


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