Two former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fighters are suing the company, alleging that it ignored signs of brain damage and injuries.
The lawsuit, dated January 16th, was filed by Vito "Big Vito" LoGrasso and Evan Singleton, who wrestled under the name "Adam Mercer."
The suit alleges that LoGrasso has sustained serious neurological damage as a result of wrestling. He says he has headaches, memory loss, depression and hearing impairment. Singleton also claims he has tremors, convulsions and migraines.
NPR has reported extensively on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. It's been well known to affect boxers, and more recently, NFL players have been part of the CTE conversation. Associated with repeated concussions, it's linked to depression, memory loss, impulse control problems and dementia.
It's also becoming a higher profile issue within the world of wrestling. Back in 2007, Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler founded The Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a non-profit organization that focuses on CTE. WWE Executive Vice President Paul Levesque sits on the organization's board. The same year the organization was founded, wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and seven-year-old son, then hanged himself. The SLI requested that the family allow them to study Benoit's brain, and shortly thereafter released neuropathological tests indicating he indeed suffered from CTE. In 2013, WWE said it was giving 1.2 million dollars to the Sports Legacy Institute to research CTE treatment.
Nowinski speaks to the full WWE roster once a year to discuss concussion treatment and prevention. He says he believes the culture among wrestlers has changed since he was with the company (his last match was in 2003). He says it's not inevitable for wrestlers to be seriously injured. "When done properly, no one should ever get hurt, and no one should be hit in the head."
WWE sent NPR this statement via their legal counsel, Jerry McDevitt, regarding the lawsuit:
"This lawsuit is virtually identical to one filed by the same lawyers in Oregon, neither of which have any merit. WWE has never concealed any medical information related to concussions, or otherwise, from our Talent. WWE was well ahead of sports organizations in implementing concussion management procedures and policies as a precautionary measure as the science and research on this issue emerged. We will vigorously contest this lawsuit."
The previous lawsuit they're referring to was filed by Portland-based retired pro wrestler William Albert Haynes, aka "Black Jack Haynes," who wrestled with WWE between 1986-1988 and took the company to court, saying they refused to acknowledge the traumatic brain injuries fighters received.
In a conversation with NPR, Charles LaDuca, a lawyer for the firm representing LoGrasso and Mercer said the Portland suit in fact opened a floodgate of other former wrestlers with similar complaints. "This is not an instance where one wrestler had several concussions and is trying to change the system," he says. "This is an ongoing epidemic problem that's rampant in major league sports generally."
LaDuca says certain moves that are encouraged by WWE are extremely dangerous, like the "chair shot" when a fighter takes a chair and smashes it over another fighter's head. "WWE deliberately creates and heightens the violence of these matches in order to heat up the audiences and increase the profits. They want more violence," he says.
Nowinski tells NPR the chair-breaking example is a sign of how the culture of wrestling has evolved. He says, "There was a time when, 20-30 years ago, everyone put their hand up on a 'chair shot'. And it would never hit you on the head. And it still looked devastating. What would happen is you'd put your hand up so it looked like you where trying to protect yourself ... and so it would smack your hand, and make a lot of noise, but never hit your head ... and then [in the late 90's] it didn't even start in WWE, it started in one of the rival places that was trying to be tougher, where the guys stopped putting their hands up, to prove they where tough. And actually let themselves get hit in the head."
Nowinski says no one was really aware of the risks. He says, "Now the culture is back to the old culture in which, this is about our longevity, we all understand this is not a real fight, let's all be professional."
WWE contends that in the world of professional wrestling, there are obvious risks, which the company is prepared for:
"Unlike contact sports, WWE performers are taught the art of perceived contact, which is cleverly choreographed. However, there are still some unintentional risks associated with in-ring performances; as such WWE has been well ahead of sports organizations in implementing concussion management procedures and policies as a precautionary measure as the science and research on this issue emerged. Current WWE procedures include ImPACT testing for brain function, annual educational seminars and the strict prohibition of deliberate and direct shots to the head."
LaDuca agrees that "in ever major sport there's risk. That's understandable." But he says the lawsuit is about WWE downplaying the seriousness of the head injuries.
LaDuca also says the WWE was not giving wrestler's adequate rest time, and made them perform too often. He says, "The WWE discouraged them from seeking additional appropriate medical help, for example seeing a neurologist. The WWE would clear these wrestlers to continue wrestling after an inadequate rest time. Downplaying these injuries makes the damage worse."