Commentary

WWE and steroids: still a tough target

Originally Published: April 13, 2009
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

This is the year of contrition. From Wall Street to the Motor City, everyone seems to be saying they're sorry. Everyone, that is, except Vince McMahon, who, in his 26th year as the head of World Wrestling Entertainment, is facing new questions about an old issue in his empire: illegal drug use.

On Jan. 2, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman wrote to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), asking its director to investigate the WWE. In a six-page letter, Waxman cited "systemic deficiencies" in the way the company polices illegal drug use. He also claimed its shows sent "the wrong message" to three million kids who watch it each week.

That argument -- it's all about the kids -- has been trotted out before. In the early 1990s, a federal prosecutor drafted a memorandum that suggested the WWE was committing a fraud on fans and advertisers "through the misrepresentations made by professional wrestling figures." Not surprisingly, the theory went nowhere. The government was trying to save an audience that didn't want to be saved.

Vince McMahon
George Napolitano/Getty ImagesThe show always goes on, as it did at a 'Million Dollar Mania' press conference last June with WWE chair Vince McMahon, wrestlers Triple H and John Cena, and WWE Diva and Playboy model Maria.

It's the same with Waxman, who, like McMahon, knows how to put on a show. While spearheading steroid hearings into baseball, Waxman smacked down Mark McGwire and put Roger Clemens in a cage match with his turncoat trainer, Brian McNamee.

Now, after bringing baseball to heel, he's moving on to the next most obvious heel in sports.

But McMahon is a different kind of target. He can't be pressured because Congress doesn't have anything to pressure him with. He has no antitrust exemption to protect, and he isn't worried about getting taxpayer money for stadiums. All he's concerned about is burying the memory of what happened 20 years ago, when FBI agents raided the medical office of a Pennsylvania doctor who worked ringside at some WWE events.

The agents found receipts that showed illegal steroid shipments to wrestlers -- a discovery that ultimately led to McMahon's indictment on steroid conspiracy charges. At his 1994 trial, a federal prosecutor called him a "corporate drug pusher." Fatefully for McMahon, the case crumbled and a jury cleared him completely.

Fifteen years later, McMahon can see the political dropkicks coming from a mile away. Just listen to the way he parried with investigators from the House Committee on Government Reform when he got dragged to Washington, D.C., for an interview under oath in December 2007.

"What is your current position with the company," the committee's senior council, David Leviss, asked in an effort to start things slowly.

"I'm the chairman," McMahon shot back. "Do we have to go through this rigmarole? Why don't you just get to the meat of it? You know who I am, you know what my position is. Why don't you just get to it?"

What Leviss wanted to "get to" was what McMahon knew about steroid use in his company, and when he knew it.

Following the '94 trial, the chastened impresario promised his fans the WWE would be cleaner than the Olympics. But that promise lasted only long enough for him to claw back up the ratings. In an October 1996 memo, he scrapped the program, concluding that his problem with illegal drugs was "so slight that group testing is no longer cost effective or necessary." From 1996 to 2006 -- a golden era when the WWE went public -- it had no comprehensive drug testing policy.

"In [that] time period, did you ever learn firsthand or receive firsthand information that any individual associated with WWE had used steroids?" the House lawyer asked 16 months ago.

"Not that I recall."

"How about employees?"

[+] EnlargeVince McMahon
AP Photo/Richard DrewOn the 'Today' show after the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, McMahon answered tough questions about steroids and pro wrestling.

"Not that I recall."

"How about management?"

"Not that I recall."

Then came the November 2005 death of 38-year-old star Eddie Guerrero, who was found in his Minneapolis hotel room before a WWE taping. Critical stories noted that Guerrero was one of more than five-dozen wrestlers to die before the age of 50 in the prior decade. With new questions being raised about drug use in the WWE, McMahon instituted a "wellness policy" in March 2006.

Within the next 12 months, 40 percent of the WWE's wrestlers tested positive for steroids and other banned drugs, according to company documents subpoenaed by the committee. Eleven percent -- or 22 wrestlers -- tested positive for steroids alone.

By contrast, five to seven percent of major league ballplayers tested positive during MLB's trial program in 2003.

"Were you surprised?" McMahon was asked by the House lawyer.

"Yes. I didn't think that we'd have that kind of population with, you know, those problems."

But there was one issue the House lawyers didn't address. Even if the problem is twice as bad in wrestling than it is in baseball, it doesn't follow that the public's interest in pursuing it should be twice as great.

After all, McMahon is producing a television show. If wrestlers want to act in it, isn't that between them and the boss? Look at the daytime soaps. Half of the guys with their shirts off look as jacked up as anyone on "Monday Night Raw."

[+] EnlargeEddie Guerrero
John Shearer/WireImage/BWR Public Relations)Four months after Eddie Guerrero's death in November 2005, the WWE instituted a 'wellness policy.'

Why are the government and the media so obsessed over wrestling?

One reason, of course, is that McMahon is such a juicy target. Getting him to lose his composure -- as Bob Costas did in an infamous interview in 2001 when he asked about steroids -- is almost a blood sport among reporters.

And McMahon can't stop seeming sleazy about his intentions. No sooner had he imposed his new wellness policy than he started to add "amendments." One of them allows wrestlers who have been suspended as the result of a positive test to work "selected" TV shows without pay, and pay-per-views with pay.

Notes Wade Keller, editor of the "Pro Wrestling Torch:" "One of his biggest stars can test positive a week before WrestleMania and still make a million dollars."

Then there's McMahon's prickly personality. Everyone from A-Rod to Arnold Schwarzenegger has issued a mea culpa about steroid use. But Vince, who acknowledged his own use (with, he said, a doctor's prescription) in 1989, just won't drink the Kool-Aid.

When asked by the House lawyer about the long-term dangers of steroid use, he shot back, "I'm not a doctor. I don't know if there are really any long-term effects of steroid usage."

Given his strapping 63-year-old physique, one can only wonder if he's speaking out of personal experience.

The bigger problem for the WWE is painkillers. In 2007, the wrestler Andrew Martin gave a documentary interview in which he said, "I just turned 32 years old and went to eight funerals. As bad as it may sound, it made me open my eyes and take my foot out the grave. I don't want to join that club. Either you clean up and straighten up, or lay down beside them."

[+] EnlargeVince McMahon
AP Photo/Kristie Bull/Graylock.comMcMahon is a master at selling the sport, as he did here at a 'WrestleMania XXIV' press conference.

On March 13, he lay down beside them. Martin was found dead, with large amounts of steroids and pain pills present in his Tampa condo. Autopsy results released late last week show he died from an accidental overdose of Oxycodone, a painkiller.

WWE analysts immediately leapt to remind fans about the early deaths of wrestlers. But two things about Martin's death aren't convenient for McMahon bashers: Martin was suspended under the WWE's wellness policy in 2007, and then let go. And McMahon paid for his rehab more than a year later, no questions asked.

In fact, the WWE is offering to put anyone who ever worked in his company through detox at company expense. According to a letter that has gone out to former employees, "Any conversation you have [with the company] is confidential and will not be released to the public during your lifetime."

Some might dismiss it as a cynical PR stunt, just like the wellness policy where only three out of 505 wrestlers were tested on grounds of "reasonable suspicion" from July 2007 to March 2008, according to the subpoenaed documents. (This is wrestling. Everyone is suspect.)

But McMahon has become such a convenient target, it might be that nothing he does will be enough.

Let's say he does hire big guys who privately get steroids through dirty doctors. How does that make him any different than the owner of an NFL team?

Waxman insists the WWE's "efforts suffer from a lack of independence and transparency." But how transparent can you make an entertainment company? Rappers like 50 Cent have been caught up in their own steroid scandals. Should the next step be an investigation of BET or MTV? Or ESPN?

That's the problem when you start probing steroids in television and Hollywood. Where do you stop? If it's with Vince McMahon, it begins to seem like a vendetta.

[+] EnlargeJohn Cena
Bob LeveyGetty ImagesJohn Cena, now a movie star, wants the government to crack down on steroid abuse -- in all sports.

"I'm insulted, quite frankly, sitting in front of you today by answering some of these ridiculous questions," McMahon complained to the House lawyers in 2007. "I'm a businessman. I'm a good businessman. I do things legally. We're a public company. We put smiles on people's faces all over the world. That's what we do. This is a fun business. So it seems to me that this inquiry is some sort of witch hunt."

Waxman sent his letter to the ONDCP in the waning days of the Bush administration. Now, it's become the problem of President Obama's nominee to head the office, Gil Kerlikowske.

Messages left at the ONDCP's public affairs office went unreturned. But you have to believe Kerlikowske is just thrilled to have this tossed in his lap.

On the 25th anniversary of WrestleMania, McMahon is looking to his legacy, and it's a formidable one. As a TV pioneer, he went from selling costumed super-heroes like Hulk Hogan to dark anti-heroes like Steve Austin. He helped give birth to reality television by making himself a central character, and he launched The Rock into a movie career. No one in television can match his longevity. Few have his instincts for what sells.

Steroids will always be a part of that legacy. But McMahon is counting on the current crop of pro-sports headlines to help him reach a higher ground.

On a recent publicity tour for the new WWE-produced flick, "12 Rounds," his latest action star, John Cena, took dead aim at A-Rod.

"The government should take the initiative," said Cena. "And if you get caught using drugs, then you should go to jail."

It's hard not to read that as a taunt. Before you come after us, Cena seems to be saying, start jailing the athletes making the real money -- the sanctimonious steroid profiteers posing as American heroes.

Let Congress investigate the WWE all it wants. Somehow, Vince McMahon always gets the last laugh.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the co-author, with Mike Mooneyham, of "Sex, Lies and Headlocks, the Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment." His latest book is "Steroid Nation," available here.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"