Friday, September 12, 2014

Is the NFL having a Chris Benoit moment?


As the continuing drama involving Ray Rice and the dishonesty of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell unfolded this week, my thoughts eventually drifted to another entertainment business story that left both supporters and detractors of a particular business shocked and appalled to such a degree that many of both were reconsidering everything they'd thought about it.  And the only one that stood out to me was the death of Chris Benoit.  Now what Benoit did to himself and his family was far more heinous than Rice's action, but there was an initial idea of what happened that ultimately gave way to a far more sinister truth.  And that truth pulled the cover back on the business that employed the man, leaving it and its fans at a real crossroads.  I remember hearing the real story and seriously debating whether I'd be able to go back to wrestling as a fan.  Being a fan means that you are at least partially endorsing the practices of the business, be it wrestling, music, fashion, or whatever.  And in wrestling that meant an insane work schedule, a preference by management for bigger and more muscular bodies, and matches that had gotten more and more dangerous in an effort to be 'extreme' and 'real'.  Having started working in the late 80s, the worst of times behind the scenes in the business, Benoit had fallen victim at one time or another to all three.  Benoit's in-match repertoire included several moves that affected his head, and over the years he ballooned in size.  Once a cruiserweight, by the time he died he'd put on a good 20 to 30 pounds of bulk and from the looks of things it wasn't in a totally natural fashion.  The headshots and the drugs (used to get bigger and recover from injury) came together to turn a man who had been well regarded by all his co-workers into a monster.  And when he killed himself and his family, it was all laid bare.  The media, long contemptuous of wrestling to start with, saw blood in the water and went in hard.  Surviving that onslaught required some huge changes to the business, and they came.

Since then a lot of the extreme, more brutal aspects of matches have been toned down or removed altogether.  Moves that specially target the head like piledrivers have been all been but outlawed in WWE matches, and the straight on chairshots that had become a staple of matches during the Attitude Era are pretty nonexistent now.  There's a wellness policy in place to discourage drug use, and it's nailed some pretty important people (Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio, Jr have gotten popped in recent years and have been suspended).  Time off for injuries have grown from an urban legend to a reality as stars like Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler were given time off to recover from concussions and Daniel Bryan has been allowed months to recover from his injuries. There was a time where all of those men would have been handed a bottle of aspirin or something stronger and sent back into the ring the next day.  Early deaths, once a regular thing in the news, have slowed down and are mostly guys who cut their teeth during the bad old days.  The business has really cleaned itself relative to the 80s and 90s, and in doing so held on to people like me who were not going to make excuses to keep watching after what happened with Benoit.  So how does the NFL fit in to all of this?  Easy.  The Rice video's shocking, clear imagery that removed any and all doubt about what happened caught a lot of people off guard.  The league had tried to downplay the incident, and probably would have succeeded had they just given Rice a longer suspension from the beginning.  But the ridiculous two game suspension, a bad move from the jump, looked 100 times worse once TMZ put the full tape out there.  And now they have a much bigger mess on their hands.

Vince McMahon and other wrestling promoters spent decades denying that the business had any problems; the carny aspect of the business and relative lack of attention it got from the media at large kept them from really having to face the music.  Until Benoit happened.  And now the NFL, which has swept domestic violence under the rug as it's players cut deals with the legal system and their victims, finds itself in a place where they may have to account for everything they've hidden.  If the Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald situations get more attention, and people start to look back at prior incidents, then the NFL could find itself having to answer some serious questions like:

  1. What kind of people is the league employing as players, and in the front office?
  2. Are the type of people who are more prone to commit domestic violence also the types more likely to find themselves in demand to play the sport of football?
  3. Does the game itself, and everything involved with it, affect players in such a way that this behavior becomes more possible?  
They've already taken major steps to decrease the number of concussions and the mitigate the damage from them.  But this is something else.  There's an expectation, or at least an lack of overall surprise that playing football could result in serious injuries.  But the off field domestic violence problem has largely been kept under wraps, so every revelation is a major blow because each one also exposes what the league has done in the past to keep it quiet.  You can never eliminate any problem, but, if you don't look like you're at least trying then you can find yourself in dire straits real fast.  The NFL isn't there yet, but they're going to have to put in work keep it from happening to them.

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