WWE and CTE: Addressing the Invisible Injury


While Daniel Bryan’s WWE departure may have left fans feeling disappointed, we should be thankful he put his health above our expectations.

Daniel Bryan’s retirement from professional wrestling has shed more light on the effects of concussions within contact sports and even sports entertainment.

On Monday, Feb. 8th, Bryan announced via Twitter that “Due to medical reasons, effective immediately, I am announcing my retirement. Tonight on Raw, I’ll have a chance to elaborate.” The IWC went crazy wondering if this was a work or if one of the biggest stars in the company was actually giving it all up. To be fair, fans had every right to be skeptical; this is professional wrestling after all.

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The speculation about Bryan’s future had been swirling for months prior to his announcement. There were conflicting reports about his status going forward in light of WWE’s Medical Director, Dr. Joseph Maroon, refusing to clear him for competition despite a neurologist for the Arizona Cardinals and a concussion specialist at UCLA claiming they would. Bryan stated in Dec. that with or without the WWE he wanted to continue his wrestling career. This was followed in Jan. by a Dave Meltzer report that WWE had frozen Bryan’s contract which led to further speculation that Vince McMahon may have been attempting to sabotage Bryan’s career by refusing to allow him to compete elsewhere so that another promotion could capitalize on his popularity.

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All of this was laid to rest as Bryan’s announcement was treated as the main event on RAW:

"“Within the first five months of my wrestling career, I’d already had three concussions,” Bryan said. “For years after that, I would get a concussion here and there, or here, or there, and it gets to the point when you’ve been wrestling for 16 years that it adds up to a lot of concussions.”"

The following day, Bryan was interviewed by WWE alum Jonathan Coachman for an ESPN SportsCenter segment. When asked how many concussions he had suffered during his career, Bryan said: “We’ve been able to document 10. But you can’t document all of them.” Perhaps more surprising than the number of concussions – which could easily be written off as “part of the job” – was Bryan’s revelation that he had also suffered seizures, a fact that was kept hidden during his rehabilitation.

Since the early 2000s the WWE has run public service announcements stating that their wrestlers are highly trained athletes who routinely suffer serious injuries and thus their actions should not be attempted at home. In 2010, as the WWE was attempting to further distance itself from the Attitude Era, they banned the use of chair shots directly to the head. However, this would not prevent lawsuits from being filed by former employees, especially in the wake of similar lawsuits brought forth by retired players of the National Football League. In 2014, after years of litigation, the NFL refused to admit any guilt but did agree to pay more than $870 million to settle concussion-related lawsuits on behalf of about 4,500 former players. That same year, England’s Premier League announced they would be enacting new concussion protocols.

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  • In 2015, former WWE wrestlers “Big” Russ McCullough, Ryan Sakoda and Matt Wiese (AKA Luther Reigns) filed a joint lawsuit for what they called “egregious mistreatment of its wrestlers for its own benefit, as well as its concealment and denial of medical research and evidence concerning traumatic brain injuries suffered by WWE wrestlers.” Their suit also claimed that WWE “coerces its wrestlers to work while they are injured by, among other methods, threatening to strip them of their position within the organization if they refuse.”  The McCullough/Sakoda/Wiese lawsuit alleges that wrestlers are “universally encouraged to wrestle through the pain.”

    Former wrestlers “Big” Vito LoGrasso and Evan Singleton (AKA Adam Mercer) also brought forth a lawsuit claiming that the WWE intentionally ignored or downplayed signs of brain damage. “It is not simply that WWE has failed to protect its wrestlers, WWE deliberately creates and heightens the violence of its matches in order to ‘heat’ up audiences and increase its profits.” Singleton claims that he is now disabled due to brain trauma and LoGrasso claims to suffer from migraines, memory loss, depression and deafness. Jerry McDevitt is one of the lawyers representing WWE and says this and other cases like it are unfounded. “WWE has never concealed any medical information related to concussions, or otherwise, from our (performers). 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.”

    The key phrase in that statement is “…as the science and research on this issue emerged” because this process is still on-going so at what point does the WWE claim to have been “well ahead” of other sports? The spotlight on concussions and specifically on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been focused on high-profile sports such as football since 1994 when then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. In contrast, the WWE implemented its Talent Wellness Program in 2006 which includes screening for traumatic brain injuries.

    Extensive research has shown that CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered severe or repeated blows to the head and was previously known colloquially as being “punch drunk” due to its common occurrence in boxers. As technology and research into this disease has advanced, CTE has been found in professional athletes from numerous other sports and activities including ice hockey, bull riding, and bicycle motocross. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression and can manifest themselves years after retirement from the sport.

    The McCullough/Sakoda/Wiese lawsuit also mentions Chris Benoit by name and points out that the autopsy on Benoit’s brain concluded it was so damaged from CTE that it “resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” Benoit killed his wife and son before committing suicide in 2007 while still an active member on the WWE roster. On Episode 182 of his podcast Talk is Jericho, close friend and former colleague Chris Jericho stated that concussions most likely played a role in Benoit’s actions:

    "“I would say, if I’m talking rationally, I would say concussions. I would say the same thing that happened with Junior Seau and all these type of guys, nothing makes sense about it. It could be concussions. It could be rage. It could be demonic possession for all I know. There’s no real closure on that.”"

    Former WWE wrestler and Harvard football player Christopher Nowinski has been outspoken on the effects of CTE in professional sports. His own career-ending concussion led him to help found the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose goal is “advancing the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.” Nowinski claims that Benoit may have been suffering from repeated, untreated concussions throughout his wrestling career which may have led to his violent actions. A 2007 New York Times article quoted Nowinski as saying that Benoit “was one of the only guys who would take a chair shot to the back of the head…which is stupid.”

    In Sep. 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University announced the findings of CTE-related research that began in 2010 thanks in part to a $1 million research grant from the NFL. The study positively identified the disease in the brains of 87 out of 91 deceased NFL players as well as 79% of all football players. The notion that CTE has little or no correlation with extreme contact sports such as football or professional wrestling is dwindling fast. To be fair, not everyone who engages in these contact sports will suffer from CTE but the likelihood is certainly increased if they continue to expose themselves to repeated blows to the head. So why do men and women continue to compete in such dangerous activities?

    The most difficult truth for an athlete to accept is when it’s time to walk away. Some do it with grace and some with reluctance The thrill of competition and the adrenaline rush upon hearing thousands of people cheer for you is one of the most potent addictions in the world and the allure of fame and glory is hard to resist. Some want a chance at immortality while others simply enjoy the thrill of competition. The hardest part about making it to the highest levels in sports (NFL, WWE, etc) is staying there. These athletes must constantly prove their worth to their peers and fans and this pressure can lead them to make decisions which seem to override their sense of self preservation; anything for just one more play or one more match regardless of the long term consequences. I was as sad as anyone to see Bryan retire, but not because I selfishly wanted see him grace the ring again. I was sad because he had to give up doing the thing he loved most in the world.

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    The solution to CTE-related injuries in the WWE is not to prevent these athletes from competing but rather to recognize the symptoms and take whatever steps are necessary to treat them quickly. This may require a heavy hand in preventing a wrestler from taking part in a match but should not stop there. Wrestlers do undergo routine and mandatory checks specifically for this disease and as the science itself evolves, so should the testing and treatment. According to the WWE’s ImPACT Concussion Management Program – which is part of the Talent Wellness Program – “If a WWE Talent show symptoms of a concussion or has suffered a concussion, then that WWE Talent will not be cleared to return to wrestling until he/she passes an ImPACT test and is clinically cleared by a certified physician.”

    As of now, these tests are only given once a year or if a wrestler displays symptoms of a concussion which are not always manifested physically. For a company that has no off-season a once per year test is not nearly enough. The WWE should also implement a long-term plan to assist retired wrestlers who may struggle with this disease years after they leave the squared circle. As of now, there is no such program designed to handle CTE-related injuries although there is a program that assists former wrestlers with “substance-related dependency problems” that was established in 2007. A similar program to deal with CTE would show a commitment to both current and future stars that recognizes their physical sacrifices and gives them at least a modest assurance that their future will not be clogged with hospital bills.

    Diamond Dallas Paige spoke candidly about competing in the WWE on Bill Apter’s podcast:

    "“Every time we go in that ring, we leave a little piece of our body in there.”"

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    Daniel Bryan has left little pieces of his body in the ring since 1999. Whether we approve or not, we should be thankful that he retired before he had no more pieces left to give.