Grantland’s Masked Man wrote a characteristically excellent obituary on Roddy Piper. Inside, the piece alluded to Piper’s role in a 2003 segment on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, which focused on the rash of early deaths of professional wrestlers. The piece covered 60 wrestlers who had died before the age of 45, and calculated the rate to be 400% higher than the general population. Piper took a somber tone:
Piper, who died last week at the age of 61, described the lethal cycle of painkillers, steroids, cocaine, and alcohol which was the norm in the industry. Vince McMahon was also interviewed, and didn’t do himself many favors when he lost his temper with Armen Keteyian. McMahon’s general point — before he took exception to being asked if this fell on his shoulders, and rustled Keteyian’s notes, anyways — was that this was symptomatic of habits developed in the territories these wrestlers came up through, and across the board with his competition. (He could have been more empathetic here, but was not totally wrong.)
Of course, at this point WWE/F had been the nominal flagbearer for the business for about two decades (there were peaks and troughs along the way), and nearly everyone who appeared prominently on their programming during that stretch was just cartoonishly muscular. What does it say, in an non-unionized industry with little job security, when the implied expectation is you must have the look to reach the pinnacle?
In any event, McMahon was right to surmise that this was a hit piece. In the introduction, Bryant Gumbel was dismissive of the pro wrestling genre as a whole, and essentially said these early deaths were the only thing about it worth covering. As the sole survivor, McMahon had to answer for everyone’s sins when he employed just a quarter of the 60 wrestlers who’d died under 45. But, it was disingenuous to totally play down any responsibility for the consumptive excesses he presided over.
Perhaps because of stories like this one, McMahon and WWE have made a concerted effort (though are, in some circumstances, not all the way there) to clean up their wellness issues. And there’s a better exit plan for wrestlers now than there was 20 years ago as their individual brands make them marketable long after they’re done in WWE. The Rock is the biggest movie star in the world. Steve Austin has a well-trafficked podcast and shills fast food BBQ. It could still be a lot better for non mega-stars, but things appear to be improving.
It’s worth noting that Piper didn’t just blame McMahon or WWE/F. He lamented the grinding stone of the “rash of promoters” he worked with through the years. This also definitely wasn’t the only time he and McMahon had differences about employment terms — Jim Ross wrote this week for Fox Sports about being the liaison between Piper and management — nor was it a permanent excommunication. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting saga to revisit this week.