Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Benoit Tragedy and Working Conditions in a Disreputable Industry

Thanks to Paul and the gang here for letting me post this.

I’m probably one of the few law profs that follows professional wrestling.  But many who don’t have no doubt heard that a star performer in this business, Chris Benoit, was apparently the perpetrator of a double-murder/suicide over the weekend. According to police investigators, he killed his wife Nancy Benoit and his seven-year old son, Daniel, and then hung himself. Benoit’s co-workers have expressed shock and claim that he never exhibited signs or behavior indicating he was capable of such a thing; the news media seems quick to blame "roid rage."

I don’t know, and there’s a good chance nobody will ever know, exactly what psychological and/or pharmacological factors caused these horrid acts. Men with no connection to the wrestling world and its vices kill their wives and children. So as to this individual case, what follows is speculation.

Still, it must be noted that deaths and various types of physical and psychological damage are all too common in this line of work. Since 1985, fifty-five prominent pro wrestlers have died at age 45 or younger; twenty-six have died at age 36 or younger.

In interviews about the Benoit tragedy, performers in the industry have not just blamed steroids, but rather have talked about the job as a whole. Wrestlers work a brutal schedule.  They can be on the road over 300 days a year (there’s no "off season"). While the endings to "matches" are scripted, and the punches and kicks are not meant to land with full force, it is a physically dangerous job. Bumps, bruises and falls are routine; many workers suffer serious injuries, and most if not all live with constant aches and pains. Thus, they use and abuse painkillers, among other drugs. Size has always mattered, and the WWE has been especially partial to giving prime spots (and thus the highest incomes) to outlandishly large and unnaturally-muscled performers.  There is even more pressure on performers who are not tall -- and Benoit was not -- to be ultra-muscular.  Generally, while "sports entertainment" is a very big business, studies indicate that its management retains many elements from its early days as a carny sideshow.

There is little academic writing on the work relations in this major industry. There is less on pro wrestling than on pornography – another big business with a history of poor working conditions. Some have wondered if the lack of attention to pornography is in part because it is a disreputable industry, and I strongly suspect that helps explain the dearth of scholarship on pro wrestling. Whatever one thinks of "sports entertainment" – and I’ll admit it’s low-brow at best – real people work in it, and whatever actually happened to Chris Benoit, real people are destroyed by it. If nothing else comes out of this tragedy, I hope the message of the workers about their conditions is heard and addressed.

Joe Slater (JS)

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