Thursday, June 28, 2007

Benoit Part 2: The Media’s Coverage and Some Context

Fair Warning: This post (or possibly these posts) will probably get a little long. Also, I haven’t really proof read them either, so there could be misspellings and such. Lastly, I’m not a doctor or psychologist, so my attempting to diagnose anything would be stupid. With that said, I have spent a lot of time over the years reading about the medical and psychological effects of activities such as wrestling, MMA, football, hockey and the impact of the drugs that their participants often use. Where I notice that I’m relying on my amateur knowledge of the effects of drugs or concussions to make an inference without something I could cite too (I don’t have time to properly cite this thing) I’ll put in an (*) to acknowledge that I’m just guessing.

Here are elements to this story I feel need to get more coverage to have a better understanding of what occured and have a better chance of making things better in the wrestling industry.

1) Chris Benoit’s 40 years before his monstrous acts of last weekend:

What makes this murder shocking isn’t that a man killed his wife and kid. While that’s about as heinous an act as a person can commit it happens far too often. What is really bizarre and strange is that the guy who did it was as highly respected in his profession as Benoit was. I’m in no way trying to resurrect his character, he doesn’t deserve that, I’m just trying to show how surprising these actions really were.

Before Monday you would be hard pressed to find a person who knew Benoit that had a negative thing to say about him. I’m not saying that as though I knew him (I’d never say that of someone I’ve only seen on television), I am saying that from the prospective of someone who has heard and read the comments of his co-workers for years, all praising him as one of the most solid and respectable guys they knew, one of the few guys that they seemed to trust enough to be honest with. In wrestling that is truly a rarity. When a wrestler looses his job, or retires, or just needs some extra cash he or she will often do what is called a shoot interview. Basically the idea of a shoot interview is to give your opinion on anything backstage, your fellow wrestlers (coworkers), your boss, anything, and sell it online. Obviously, as a result if you’ve ever pissed off anybody in wrestling it’s likely that you’ll be vilified eventually in an interview somewhere. Despite this all anyone ever heard about Benoit was glowing.

On the tribute show aired Monday before all the facts were known (at least on the eastern time showing, more on that in a later post maybe) various friends-coworkers gave their memories of Benoit (you can find them on youtube if you want). I’m sure most people look back to these statements retrospectively and say that his friends and coworkers were simply canonizing a guy because he died, that’s not the case though. Had you asked those same people for their thought on Benoit a week ago you would have gotten basically the same answers (albeit without the tears). That's why the fact this guy was a monster is so surprising.

Information has come out regarding previous troubles in Benoit’s marriage, in 2003 his wife Nancy filed for divorce and a restraining order citing threats to her and violent outburst where he had destroyed furniture. Does this mean there was a domestic violence problem in the marriage? Possibly, maybe even probably, honestly we’ll never really know whether, or how often, Benoit had been violent with his family before this weekend, we just know it happened to some degree. Either way it does show that there was some darker side to the guy described by so many that knew him as a great family man. It’s also in stark contrast to a man whom Linda McMahon described (on Good Morning America today) as taking off back home from the tour whenever he could to see his family, even if it was for only 4 or 5 hours. Honestly, it’s puzzling to try to figure out cases like this and we’ll never really have a full picture.

What I find particularly interesting is the description of his actions in the restraining order. He’s cited as threatening his wife and breaking furniture, that sounds pretty characteristic of roid rage (*). These rages are often described as outbursts of aggression, one former user has said his rages mirrored a much more violent version of a childish tantrum. Steroids effect everyone differently, but what is known is that the body stops producing enough testosterone naturally if steroids are abused and this often lead to a various levels of depression that don’t stop once you’re off steroids.

So, what does all this mean? In my summation it looked like Benoit was a class act to everyone around him, except for his wife and kid (at least at times often enough that she thought about leaving). I also think it shows that the media has run to quickly blame roid rage (to the exclusion of any other factors in many instances) for these murders. Steroids certainly played a part in creating an unstable Chris Benoit, but we won’t know if roid rage could have been a major cause specifically in the deaths until the toxicology reports come out in a few weeks. If roids were in his system the rage could have been a big part of the murders, but “roid rage” as the media is hyping doesn’t last for an entire weekend (* That’s what every roid abuser I’ve heard say anyway). Basically, roid rage can’t really account for as much of this as the media has credited it.

Until the reports do come I wish many of the major media outlets would stop their typical “guess at one simplistic answer (roid rage) and repeat it until it becomes a fact in the people’s mind.” While I’m very happy that the steroid (and other substance) issue is finally getting a level of scrutiny it has deserved for some time, I also think the truly disturbing/complex nature of these events can only be seen with a broader view of the situation. What follows are some issues that possibly (probably in my opinion) played as big a role in causing Benoit to snap.

2) The destructive wrestling lifestyle, it’s more than just steroids:

There truly is no off-season in pro wrestling. These guys work every week of the
year without ever really knowing when their next time off will be. While you can ask for and receive time off it’s not like many guys feel comfortable doing that until they’ve achieved a high level of success late in their career. (Benoit recently took 4 months off to spend with his family). Too many performers seem to let themselves get caught up on the never ending hamster wheel of touring, especially if they have a work ethic like Benoit was said to have.

Next, consider the physical trauma of their job. Sure, wrestling is scripted, but that doesn’t change the hits that a wresters body takes jumping, landing, and falling. As my favorite wrestler of all time (among a couple), Arn Anderson, once said about the level of wear on a wrestler’s body due to a match “it’s like getting into a car crash every night you go into that ring.” It’s not hard to see this either, talk to any former wrester and they’ll probably give you a laundry list of aches, pains, and future health problems their doctors have told them are just around the corner (if they’re old enough they’ll just tell you about their current health problems).

Because of this lifestyle it’s easy to see how so many wrestlers wind up taking various uppers to get themselves primed for show time, downers to be able to get rest afterward, steroids to keep their physique unnaturally ripped, alcohol to forget the fact you’ll be on the road for the foreseeable future, and of course pain killers to dull the pain. In many (most?) cases wrestlers who abuse drugs aren’t doing it for recreation, they’re doing it to function.

How is Vince McMahon supposed to remedy this? Simple, have definite (and sufficient) time off scheduled for each performer on the roster and stagger their time off so that WWE can still tour year round, it just won’t expect every wrestler to tour year round with it. It’s not like they can’t handle a guy’s absence, they have to do it often when guys get hurt (i.e. the Undertaker not too long ago).

3) Head trauma:

This is kind of a continuation of #2, but more particular to Benoit. His style was very high impact, former WWE wrestler, Harvard grad, and concussion expert Chris Nowinski had this to say; "he was one of the only guys who would take a chair shot to the back of the head, which is stupid.” On top of that Benoit utilized a lot of headbutts, including a diving headbutt from the top rope. That’s a lot of trauma on a part of your body that shouldn’t be rattled on that regular of a basis. As we are just now seeing with retired NFL players, repeated head trauma has a lasting effect, causing depression, mood swings, etc. (to see what I’m talking about google Andre Waters, an NFL player who recently committed suicide). Did repeated head trauma contribute? We might not know unless Chris Nowinski gets his wish, he’s trying to get Benoit’s brain analyzed. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything about this happening. If they don’t look at it one possible key element in this whole tragedy could go unrecognized.

Honestly, this factor is the most uncomfortable for me to think about. The head trauma of NFL players, NHL players, boxers, wrestlers, and mixed martial artists is basically a requirement in what they do. The only thing I think that can be done here is for Vince to hire psychiatrists and require mandatory periodic checkups (hopefully even brain scans).

4) WWE’s Drug Policy:

After the death of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit’s best friend, WWE started a new, allegedly strict, “Wellness Policy.” At first it did seem to really be working (*), (even though their standards for a failed test were loose, there’s an article in the New York Sun that discusses this in more detail than I can here). As a fan you saw you could see many guys getting smaller, more natural looking (*). Also, you often heard about suspensions for violations. Eventually this seemed to change. Guys got bigger, suspensions seemed less frequent. Did the policy that WWE has continually cited help some? Yeah, but it didn’t seem to be enough, or at least not strictly enforced enough over time (not speaking for Benoit, just generally to keep guys off the juice).

The answer here is simple, make the Wellness Policy what it should be. Make the tests stricter (requiring lower levels for a failed test like the Olympics or MLB) and add a mental health component as described above.

5) Lastly, Just Plain Bad Genetics and Experiences:

The guy’s best friend died not to long ago, to hear him say how much that hurt him (if you don’t mind the creepy overtones of seeing Benoit discuss his best friend’s death) click here . If you don’t want to watch the video he holds himself together for most of it, saying how Eddie was the one guy he could go to with personal problems, was his best friend, etc. At the end he breaks down as he thanks Eddie for making such a positive influence in his life.

On top of Eddie’s death there was the story we just learned about his son’s Fragile X syndrome. Obviously this was hard on the family. For some letters from families who have had to deal with it click here.

BIG TIME (*) HERE (I’m not diagnosing this as what caused Benoit to do this, I’m just saying I read an article and noticed some similarities): Lastly, it’s long, but here’s an article about the psychology of fathers who kill their family, refered to as “family annihilators.” To shorten it here’s the most relevant part:

“The profile of a family annihilator is a middle-aged man, a good provider who would appear to neighbours to be a dedicated husband and a devoted father,' Levin said. 'He quite often tends to be quite isolated. He is often profoundly dedicated to his family, but has few friends of his own or a support system out with the family. He will have suffered some prolonged frustration and feelings of inadequacy, but then suffers some catastrophic loss. It is usually financial or the loss of a relationship. He doesn't hate his children, but he often hates his wife and blames her for his miserable life. He feels an overwhelming sense of his own powerlessness. He wants to execute revenge and the motive is almost always to "get even".'

Research from the States shows that family annihilators rarely have a prior criminal record. However, many experts believe there is often a prior pattern of domestic abuse. A report published two years ago in Britain by Women's Aid, called Twenty-nine child homicides, found that, out of 13 families studied, domestic violence was a feature in 11. In one of the other two cases, the mother spoke of her ex-partner's obsessively controlling behaviour.'To the outside world, these crimes seem to come out of nowhere,' continued Levin. 'The perpetrators have not previously been involved in criminal behaviour. Nor do they tend to be on drugs or drinking heavily when they commit the crime. However, if psychologists had seen them in advance, they would have spotted the warning signs. They would have noticed how the person reacted to things not going his way - the irrational rage and the blaming of others. These people often also regard their partner and children as their own possessions.'

In the majority of cases, if the perpetrator fails in his own suicide, as in the Hogan and Hall cases, they almost always plead some form of insanity.

But Levin rejected this: 'These are executions. They are never spontaneous. They are well planned and selective. They are not carried out in the heat of the moment or in a fit of rage. They are very methodical and it is often planned out for a long time. There are certain people the killer blames for his problems. If a friend came along, he wouldn't kill him or her. He kills his children to get even with his wife because he blames her and he hates her. The killer feels he has lost control. Annihilating his family is a way of regaining control. It is a methodical, selective murder by a rational, loving father. That's why it is so terrifying.'

Although these cases are more common than child murders by a stranger, they often do not receive the same media coverage. Part of the reason is that the perpetrator often takes his own life as well - meaning there is no court case. But Levin said he also felt people were reluctant to think too much about such abhorrent crimes.”

In conclusion, steroids certainly played a role in making Chris Benoit an unhealthy person, but there was a lot more that caused Benoit to have a complete mental breakdown and do what he did.

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