Linda McMahon has resigned as chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment to run for the Republican nomination for Christopher Dodd’s U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. Few rise to Ms. McMahon’s level of wealth and power with spotless hands. This may be especially true in her home state, the cradle of another storied American prestidigitator, Phineas Taylor Barnum.
Still, you can be sure the war rooms are humming with talk of possible skeletons in her closet. And we don’t just mean the remains of Paul Bearer, one-time manager of WWE’s star wrestler, The Undertaker. What are Ms. McMahon’s political opponents most likely to probe?
“Sports entertainment” may be yucky in the opinion of elites, but American popular culture isn’t a taste test. The more serious issue for Ms. McMahon is that this fake sport, over which WWE has held market dominance for a generation, has seen literally hundreds of performers drop dead under age 50. By comparison, rock-and-roll stardom is safe, and many hold the industry’s lax health and safety standards responsible for the pandemic. Marc Mero, a wrestler in the 1990s with WWE’s predecessor World Wrestling Federation, does anti-drug lectures at high schools in Florida and holds up signs with the names of the dead pro wrestlers with whom he personally worked matches. At last count, the number had reached well over two dozen.
“Not even a soldier returning from Iraq can make a statement like that,” Mero says.
In 2007, the double murder-suicide of WWE star Chris Benoit made international headlines and led to rumblings of investigations by both Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Bobby Rush’s Energy Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. Both initiatives fizzled upon the realization by these politicians that far more people cared about Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds’ fake records in the real sport of baseball. But in December 2007, the Waxman committee staff did conduct interviews – which, though not in open hearings, were transcribed and publicly released – with Linda McMahon and other WWE executives.
The interview of her husband Vince McMahon, the chairman of WWE, revealed the scale of the baggage Linda carries into the electoral arena. Vince is the visionary of wrestling’s stranglehold on cable TV and pay-per-view. He is also a calculated loose cannon. When the Waxman people, in the course of grilling Vince about WWE’s so-called Wellness Policy drug-testing procedures, asked if he continued to use steroids himself despite being an occasional in-ring performer and a role model for his employees, he refused to answer the question. The McMahons’ lawyer, Jerry McDevitt (whose Pittsburgh-based law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, is also registered as WWE’s lobbyist on Capitol Hill) exploded with a profanity.
In 1991 Vince McMahon admitted to having “experimented” with the anabolic steroid deca-durabolin. This came not long after a Pennsylvania doctor, George Zahorian, who served as the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission ringside physician at wrestling shows, became the first doctor convicted under a statute making it illegal to prescribe steroids for non-therapeutic purposes.
In 1994 Vince McMahon was himself acquitted at a federal trial on charges of conspiring to distribute steroids to his cartoon employees (who are technically independent contractors – another area of heated controversy). The next year an investigation by New York’s Village Voice raised the question of whether a star prosecution witness, Emily Feinberg (McMahon’s former secretary and a one-time Playboy magazine model), had been corrupted by a “fixer,” Martin Bergman, who was also the husband of McMahon’s defense attorney, Laura Brevetti.
In 1998 the McMahons’ wrestling company did an initial public stock offering the same week as Martha Stewart. (Who could have guessed that Stewart would be the one to land behind bars?) For a time they were paper billionaires and listed on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. So Linda McMahon has deep enough pockets to make her Senate race interesting.
Just as others have plenty of mud to sling around and make it even more interesting.
Irvin Muchnick is author of “Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death,” which will be published next month. Pre-order info is at benoitbook.com.Filed under: Archive