Today is June 25, 2013. Six years ago, around this same time, I was in a taxi on my way to Manila from the night shift. The driver was, naturally, tuned into an AM station, so I was surprised when the announcer mentioned the word “wrestler.” Unfortunately the reception wasn’t good, but what I pieced together at the time was “WWE wrestler,” Benoit,” and “found dead.” The first thought through my mind was, “Not another wrestler dead.”*
As more and more information became available, it was clear that it was no ordinary passing.
The only time Chris Benoit was ever mentioned on WWE programming was the day after the double murder/suicide, in a special tribute to him, before WWE management were appraised of the details. The following day on the ECW program, Vince McMahon came out and did what was wrestling’s version of a retraction. Since that time, WWE as a whole has dropped Chris Benoit from all of their accessible records, most notably from the WWE website. This was done, likely on the premise that Benoit had maliciously and premeditatedly killed his wife and son before killing himself.
Medical evidence later surfaced and pointed to CTE-induced brain damage akin to having the brain of an 85-year old man with Alzheimer’s. The doctors who examined Benoit’s brain even went as far as to say that he should not be held responsible for the deaths of his wife and son, that he likely suffered extreme dementia.
Browsing through the internet, there are basically two sides to the discussion: those who feel that Benoit should be buried and forgotten as a horrible human being for killing his wife and son, and those who believe that we should make a distinction between the Benoit who killed himself and his family and the Benoit who gave his entire being to professional wrestling. Of the former, the sentiment is clear: You life is determined by your last acts, and nothing you do before then matters. On the other hand, some on the latter side even go so far as to suggest that Benoit should be included in the WWE Hall of Fame.
I’m not sure I can go with either side.
For the record, I completely understand the decision of the WWE to sanitize their public records of any mention of Benoit. It isn’t about the PG rating, or about how McMahon jumped the gun with his Tribute episode. The fact is, whether he was insane or not, Benoit killed his wife and son, and then killed his family. That is not the kind of man a company such as the WWE wants to associate with its upper echelon, and most especially not the World Heavyweight Title/WCW Title. I understand how superficial it may seem – after all, not a few of the members of WWE’s Hall of Fame are squeaky-clean people – but in context, wrestling is no longer an adult-only spectacle. Even before the PG Era, wrestling was always targeted at a young demographic, and it would be a monumental task to have to explain his persistent presence in their records without going through the whole murderer/wrestler dichotomy and debate. (As opposed to *ahem* some current members of the WWE HoF, whose indiscretions are largely kept hidden from public view.)
Be that as it may, I do not believe it is in the best interest of WWE to continue with their position. The medical evidence is rather conclusive as to how far gone Benoit was mentally at the time of the murders, and that the likely cause of his brain damage was the multiple untreated concussions he’d had over the years, wrestling the way he did.
Rather than sweep Benoit under the rug, I believe the WWE and the wrestling community in general owes it to itself to come to terms with Benoit’s death and accept the fact that we all had some blame to share. We all cheered him on as he took to the top rope and landed almost always head-first into other a fellow wrestler or the canvass. We all cheered as he took shot after shot to the head with a steel chair – sometimes even to the back of the head. We cheered as he took high spot after high spot, to the point where his neck had ruptured. And if nothing else, Benoit wanted us to cheer (or boo, as in the case of his heel run against the Rock). He wanted us to be entertained, to receive our money’s worth as we watched him.
We loved him, and he loved us just as much. He gave us everything, and in the end it cost him his own life and the life of his wife and son.
We owe it to Chris, Nancy and Daniel to accept that this wasn’t a cut-and-dry case of roid rage (which amazingly, some people still think of this incident), or of Chris being a horrible human being. We owe it to Chris, Nancy and Daniel to accept that this was a tragedy that took place over a long period of time, and culminated on June 24, 2007. And we owe it to Chris, Nancy and Daniel to ensure that this never happens again to any professional wrestler.
For its part, WWE seems to have at least accepted that there may be truth to the findings of Chris Nowitzki and the Sports Legacy Institute, so much so that they have donated $1.2M to SLI to fund research on ante-mortem diagnoses (currently CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem by examining brain tissue) and possibly even treatment. On a more practical level, since Benoit’s death, steel chair shots to the head have been largely banned from WWE television, and a number of wrestling moves focused on the head are rarely used, such as “Brainbuster” and “Piledriver” variants (except for the Tombstone Piledriver, perhaps a nod at how safe the Undertaker and Kane are as workers).
I feel that the next major step is for the WWE to acknowledge Benoit’s career and his contributions to the industry, and to address his death as a tragedy of the wrestling business as a whole, not just of Chris and his family.
In this way, we can finally bring closure to their deaths, give it some meaning and value, and start moving forward.
*This was my reaction because barely a week earlier, Sherri Martel, WWE Hall of Famer and former WWE Women’s Champion, had also passed away, in her case from a drug overdose.
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