Editoroial: At The Expense of Others – By Cameron Heffernan

Examining the Aaron Hernandez debacle, head injuries, machismo and violence in sports.


Six years, and three days ago, the town of Fayetteville, Georgia was rocked by a double murder-suicide. Professional wrestler, Chris Benoit bound and asphyxiated his wife, then two days later, strangled their seven-year-old son. Benoit – then after placing Bibles by his loved ones corpses – took his own life, hanging himself by the cord of a weight machine – a Bible placed on the seat also. The World Wrestling Entertainment first acknowledge it as a tragedy that had yet to be explained. Several days later, reports surfaced of the horror that investigators were faced with inside the Benoit home. WWE looked the other way, and since then the only times you hear of the travesty is in circles of the most depraved wrestling fans.

One of the sports greatest champions, one of it’s greatest performers. Disappeared; no vanished is a better word. As if he never existed. The words “crippler cross-face” and “flying head-but” were to not be used. The Name Chris; was to only be met with a Jericho. People with signs referencing the “Rabid Wolverine” would be kicked out of arenas. The mention of the man’s name was a sentence of banishment in the universe that is World Wrestling Entertainment. He had become the deranged individual he portrayed in the ring. The run of un-reality was gone. Replaced by the brutal reminder, that slamming your head into things for a long time will certainly deteriorate any semblance of a mind, you thought you had.

In the aftermath, WWE was faced with a PR nightmare. The sport that was at one point mandating steroids for better performance; was now facing the unfortunate reaping of what they sewed. Studies of Benoit’s brain, released by Legacy Sports Institute , began to show the lasting effects of continuous concussions and steroid abuse. Benoit had roughly 10 times the amount of testosterone coursing through his veins on the nights of the murders too.

The writing was on the wall for WWE.

Soon thereafter, WWE expedited the “family friendly” process it was slowly transitioning into. No more head shots with chairs, kendo sticks or anything. No more blood on live T.V., no more “puppies”, less violence, and pushing characters like John Cena with squeaky clean images became their primary directive. WWE also became one of the more stingiest PED tester’s in sports, pushing for legit blood test on every athlete – to this day there rigorous testing has produced suspensions for top-tier wrestlers, like Randy Orton. All in all, the WWE cleaned up their stain on sports and even ushered in a new era of caring in the violent world of gladiator sports.

This all started around 2006, with the WWE Talent Wellness Program.

Effective today, February 27, 2006, WWE is implementing a broad WWE Talent Wellness Program.  The Program has two components:

1) an aggressive substance abuse and drug testing policy;

and 2) a cardiovascular testing and monitoring program. 

The Substance Abuse and Drug Testing Policy (“Policy”) prohibits the non-medical use and associate abuse of prescription medications and performance-enhancing drugs, as well as the use, possession and/or distribution of illegal drugs by WWE Talent. 

The use of masking agents and/or diuretics to conceal or obscure the use of prohibited drugs is also prohibited.  This Policy will be administered by Dr. David L. Black, Ph.D., D-ABFT, D-ABCC, of Aegis Sciences Corporation, Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Black will be responsible for scheduling Talent for testing, administering collection of samples, coordinating secure shipment of samples to the testing facility, determining whether any WWE Talent has tested positive and directing the appropriate penalty be imposed. 

Under the Policy, WWE Talent may be tested on a random and/or reasonable suspicion basis.  The initial test of all Talent will be considered “baseline” testing. No discipline will be imposed for a positive test on the baseline test. The results of the baseline test, if positive for any prohibited substance, will be utilized thereafter by Dr. Black to determine if use has continued. After the baseline test, subsequent positive tests for non-medical use of a prohibited substance will result in disciplinary action. 

For testing positive the first time, a Talent will be suspended for 30 days without pay.  A second positive test results in a 60-day suspension without pay or, if Dr. Black so determines, in-patient care at a substance abuse facility, during which the Talent also will be suspended without pay.  A third positive test results in termination. 

The cardiovascular aspect of the wellness program will be handled by New York Cardiology Associates P.C., led by Drs. Post and Feuerbach, whose credentials also are attached.  Under this aspect of the Program, all WWE Talent will undergo an extensive cardiovascular stress test.  Examinations and treatment will be conducted thereafter as warranted.

That’s what WWE implemented nearly a year and a half, before the Benoit murders. So, what happened? What did Benoit fly under the radar? Why wasn’t his baseline test flagged? Seeing as it should’ve shown exorbitant amounts of testosterone, the WWE should’ve had a handle on all this. They didn’t though, and much like everything else in this world; we really don’t start caring until the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

In the NFL, with Junior Seau’s suicide and the untimely demise of other such NFL athletes, the question began to arise in football. Are these men risking their lives? Then the Jovan Belcher travesty happened. Flashes of Chris Benoit began to hit the NFL and the question became, not only are they risking their lives? but the lives of others?

The first study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE, as it’s better known) came form former Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Webster who’s untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 50, raised suspicions. Webster suffered from dementia, as well as other former players; this was a pattern to be followed. Unfortunately, the only way to follow the bread crumbs was with the post mortem bodies of dead athletes. Preferably football players, wrestlers and hockey players.

The great panic that overtook the NFL didn’t really sink in till 2011. When the League had a half-assed attempt to control and protect players by threatening suspensions and even fines for hitting above the shoulders (EA Sports even promised more realistic consequences to hitting players without regard and extending the duration of a player being out with a concussion, in Madden. None of this played out that way though, it was all smoke and mirrors, which the NFL has been dealing in for the better part of the last 11 years.).

This didn’t work. People who collect over a million a year, more than likely, could give a shit less about paying $10,000 for attempting to disconnect someone’s head from their shoulders. This is the reason red-blooded Americans watch football. Pure unadulterated violence. We pine for the most brutal hit; like the Romans clamored for their gladiator heroes to be disemboweled by lions. We live and breathe a culture of violence on a daily basis – we even seem to have enjoyed the new Superman film more than the last, only because he commits more acts of aggression. I’m in the same boat with the rest of humanity. We all thirst for violence. Whether its in the news or sports; we want the most dire of situations, as opposed to the optimistic façade we pine for as a mirage to our, so called, “American values”.

By 2012, there were more than 33 former NFL players diagnosed with post-mortem CTE. Then the Seau suicide rocked football, and all of the sudden, we cared. When it was 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania junior lineman, Owen Thomas, in 2010, we kind-of cared. Or the same year when 17-year-old, Nathan Stiles, collapsed after taking one too many blows to the head after a homecoming football game, we again, kind-of cared, but only as long as it didn’t interfere with the brutality of America’s No. 1 sport, the NFL. Once it was a beloved professional – which is the key word –  football player, someone who had a squeaky clean track record and was beloved by all walks of life, we finally began to think, “hey, maybe it’s not cool to root for people to almost kill one another, on a weekly basis?”

Five gun shots rung throughout the parking lot of an industrial park, in Attleboro, Massachusetts. People working overnight heard the gunshots, but none thought to pursue it – allegedly. As people went about with their daily routines the next morning, a jogger discovered the body of Odin Lloyd, 27, a mile away from, now former tight end of the New England Patriots, Aaron Hernandez’s home.

When reports first broke, it was unclear whether or not Hernandez had anything to do with the murder. All we knew, was Hernandez was being contacted by police and that, he may be involved with the killing.

Then, a report from Palm Beach hit, alleging Hernandez had shot someone in the face in Florida, but the victim was unwilling to press charges. More and more, the pieces began to fit, more evidence came out against Hernandez, and now he’s sitting in a jail cell, with no bail on one count first degree murder, five counts of illegal gun possession and a litany of other charges. Lloyd is reported to have been picked up by Hernandez at 2:30 a.m. on the night of June 17, to which Lloyd texted his sister, “do you see who I’m with?”. At 3:22 a.m. when his sister responded, he replied “NFL,” a minute later, he sent his last text, “Just so you know.” Lloyd was found with two bullet wounds to the chest as well as three other entry wounds in what is described by investigators as, “orchestrated execution style.” Security cameras also showed the car Hernandez rented leaving the scene at the same time as the murder.

Today, another report surfaced, a drive-by shooting that occurred in Boston, Hernandez may be involved with also.

In the 2000’s, the NBA was hit with the culture of “hip-hop”. David Stern and his cronies acted fast to put a stop to his players dressing like they felt. Suits were made mandatory on the sidelines, and since, the NBA has adapted and now become the forefront for high fashion in sports.

The “culture of violence” is a much more slippery slope, than NBA players wearing “Kango” hats and track suits courtside though. In the NFL, NHL and wrestling, a “culture of violence” very much exists. With wrestling and the NHL, they’ve taken the utmost precautions in making sure their assets are treated with the best attention – aside from the still existing fighting rules in hockey. Wrestling had their current World Heavyweight Champion sit out nearly a month with “concussion like symptoms”; even if it was an act, they still showed how serious an injury it can be. In the NHL, Sidney Crosby sat out nearly an entire year due to “concussion like symptoms”.

The NFL on the other hand, and American football in general, it’s taken a few years – and even to this very day – to realize how important it is for these players to start taking each others safety seriously.

I’m not entirely saying CTE is to blame for Hernandez’s actions. But when you look at the sport, how the head hunting still continues, the running backs still lead with their heads and how “in between the hash marks” is considered a no-man’s land, as well as, reoccurring themes of recklessness and general disregard towards other human beings as well as their own lives, the NFL has brought, this “culture of violence” to the precipice.

In every case of suicide or untimely death due to heart attack or other cardiovascular failure with former NFL players, hockey players and wrestler, CTE was involved. It’s unclear whether the DUI manslaughter charges that Donte Stallworth and Leonard Little seemed to dodge were brought on by CTE, but the minimal suspensions they received were not. Then the though was, as long as the NFL was a non-profit status, billion-dollar organization, they weren’t going to care.

CTE, which is also linked to the Benoit travesty, is also linked to Belcher and the murdering of his girlfriend, then showing up at Arrowhead Stadium, to where he committed suicide. Granted the NFL didn’t know about CTE till maybe, 2003 – seeing as it’s first appearance was ’02. But to wait nearly 11 years to give a shit was a little too late. Especially since it took the suicide of Seau and then the murder-suicide of Belcher and his girlfriend, last year for them to see a tiny glimpse of light, and make some change. The NFL has taken it’s precautions now, even establishing running backs who lead with their helmets will now receive a penalty and fine.

Is it too late though? And, is the fact that on – allegedly – two different occasions, someone so mentally unbalanced, was so enraged by such a minor situation – like a night club disagreement – for which that man felt he had to murder. My condolences to the families that have lost someone  – and I am in no way attempting to make excuses for Hernandez’s actions. Looking at the NFL’s track record, as well as the Benoit situation, that maybe, CTE has a role in all this? Maybe the constant barrage of blows to the head Hernandez has received in his football career, he now thinks his actions are justified. When arraigned today, Hernandez didn’t show emotion through the entire process until the end. As if his mind wasn’t there – he was lost in the same world that allowed him to think murder was the only way to solve his problems.

Head trauma is a very serious thing, and although we like to wax poetic about the glory days of the “gladiators of the grid iron” those men are dead. And they died, not knowing who they were, or even who loved ones were. I lost someone very close to me a long time ago due to brain trauma and a tumor the size of a baseball. You don’t go gracefully. Although we think of these people as more than human beings, they aren’t.

We’ve been entertained though, granted it’s at the expense of others. But, we weren’t rooting for Chris Benoit the man. We rooted for Chris Benoit, the “Rabid Wolverine.”

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