Head injuries are a major part of any of today’s contact sports. With the research completed on the effects of concussions, there have been many discussion regarding what can be done to prevent them. In sports such as football or hockey, you are provided a helmet and the belief was that it should reduce the chances of a concussion. What about in wrestling? At the collegiate and amateur level, wrestlers are often fitted with headgear and are somewhat protected. The risk becomes greater when you pursue professional wrestling as a career.
Last year, I had the chance to ask Ring of Honor color commentator and professional wrestler Steve Corino about having his son Colby involved in wrestling, and one of things he said to me was that he always told his son to ‘protect his head’. He said that he often didn’t believe his son would take his word so he’d ask others that Colby looked up to if they could share the same advice with him. Bumps are a major part of wrestling; part of the prevention of injury comes in the execution of the move, while the other part of it comes in the receiving of the move. In different parts of the world where wrestling is more the focus then entertainment, taking bumps to one’s head is something that doesn’t appear to be as prevalent.
The number of head injuries suffered by professional wrestlers has risen of late, and that could be attributed to a number of different causes. The more controlled mat wrestling that existed in the 20th century has been replaced due to the need to excite and create a reaction in the modern audience, at the expense of the talent. Bruno Sammartino, Whipper Billy Watson and Lou Thesz were all mat wrestlers whose strength was more emphasized than anything else. It is likely there were fewer head injuries then because of the manner in which they wrestled.
When we see athletes today compete in the WWE, regardless of how staged wrestling may be, the one constant appears to be that, when most receive a bump that risks hitting their head on the mat, they clutch their head and neck to cushion the blow almost instinctively. It is often said you can heal a broken limb or torn ligament, but there is no healing brain damage. In fact, when a number of today’s wrestlers take a bump, they will extend their arms in such a manner that they will risk separating a shoulder, in order to prevent their head from being split open. Recently, Sin Cara separated his shoulder, and when you watch him land on the concrete you can see him outstretch his arm so that his back and shoulder take the brunt of the bump rather than his head. Another example of taking a bump in a manner that protects his head would be John Cena. Whenever he is on the receiving end of a powerbomb he always extends his arms so that his elbows and shoulders take the brunt of the bump. The concern then becomes less about the injury to the head, but the injury to the neck from a potential whiplash effect. What should be noted is that often the whiplash effect from such a bump could also lead to a concussion.
A number of today’s talents in the WWE such as DolphZiggler have received concussions even when they do protect themselves. In an effort at times to create realism in a match they leave themselves vulnerable for head injury. One of the concerns that wrestlers may have is they are afraid of following any concussion protocol because they may ‘lose their spot’. Is the risk greater than the reward or is the reward greater than the risk? Today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and generally better than before. Fans that were not aware of what a ring is made of before are more than likely aware now, after watching the finish of the Brock Lesnar/Undertaker match at the Hell in a Cell pay per view. The wooden slabs that support the ring is thick and unforgiving, so when you consider the impact that has on someone’s head or neck when they are propelled to the mat, or leap from the top rope with a diving head butt, you can see how truly risky wrestling is in and out of the ring.
Former WWE Superstar Chris Harvard (real name Christopher Nowinski) has explored head injuries and the known consequences that can result from extensive trauma to the head and neck area. While the information today about concussions isn’t exactly new, one does have to wonder, given the ever-growing need to compete in the rather stiff style that is becoming popular, if the ever-growing amount of injuries can be reduced? Is it just a matter of proper care in training? Are their ways wrestlers today can better take care of themselves? Some of the responsibility falls on the promotions that employ the talent, but it is ultimately the talent that take the risk. A number of studies have shown that concussions lead to a progressive degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is tied to a number of issues including; memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression, along with dementia. After the events of June 25th, 2007 and the death of Chris Benoit,Nowinski contacted Benoit’s father and suggested that years of trauma to Benoit’s brain are what led to his actions. Results of an analysis of Benoit’s brain showed that it was comparable to an ’85-year old Alzheimer’s patient’.
Is this to suggest that multiple concussions will lead to other performers ending up in the same condition as Benoit? Without proper treatment and protocol by the wrestler, physician or promotion it would be difficult to refute the suggestion. Since these reports, one would think that the WWE has taken the proper steps to ensure that its talent receive the best care possible when it comes to potential concussions or head injuries. While many careers have ended because of multiple concussions, how many held on, or may potentially hold on, refusing to give up the opportunity to do what they love to do? It’s actually quite sad for not just wrestling, but any sport that some would risk long-term disability for what in hindsight is really a short-term gain.
The question to be asked is, if the talent don’t take these risks with their health, does that jeopardize their chances for greater pay, greater push, or greater recognition? A promotion wouldn’t openly state this, but how is overall effort measured by a company? And don’t they reward the one that goes over and above what’s expected of them? This past year, the WWE came underfire from previous talent who claimed their long-term health issues stemmed from head trauma. One website, www.wweconcussionlawsuit.com, is looking for past talent to come forward with their claims so they can receive legal representation. While some would say it’s simply past wrestlers seeking a payday, looking to receive some form of compensation for past injuries, the lesson to be learned is what should be about done moving forward rather than leaning on the past.
The idea of a union has long been discussed in wrestling, but unfortunately the belief is that wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. Wrestlers are supposed to be independent contractors who move independently, and whose agreements are arranged independently in a manner that differs from person to person. How do talent protect themselves and their best interests when it comes to preventing concussions or head trauma? There is always life insurance, but do insurance agencies provide reasonable coverage at a reasonable rate knowing that the nature of what you do puts your life at risk? It isn’t likely. As far as a union is concerned, who would govern that, and how do smaller promotions that barely have enough to stay afloat work in conjunction with a greater overseeing body? Some smaller promotions operate only one show a month, so to have enough coverage to protect the talent brought in for shows is a daunting task. Often times employers will have workplace hazard training, but that doesn’t quite apply to wrestling. Hazards are the almost a given when you consider the nature of the sport.
So where does that put us then, if there are obstacles to ensuring that talent is properly protected? It would be easy to say that it’s one of the hazards of the sport that the risk is something the talent was always aware of that they are fully aware that the chance of injury is part of what they do. The rather harsh truth of these cases is that they are adults that know the field they are pursuing and the potential hazards tied to it. But do fan expectations put wrestlers in a position to have to take chances that otherwise they wouldn’t normally take? There has to be some link between the two. If Daniel Bryan didn’t wrestle the way he did, would fans have been so drawn to him the way that they were? It isn’t likely. The style of wrestling a performer uses is a contributing factor to head injuries as well. There is a greater risk for someone who takes chances off the top rope rather than someone who competes on the mat or simply uses a slower moving, methodical style. The problem then lies with how the smaller wrestlers protect themselves when taking a potential blow to the head.
It appears to be a problem that is circular in a nature, sadly, with no real resolution. However, all involved know that change is necessary in order to better protect talent. Education about the potential of head injuries seems to be the best option for wrestlers today. Each match could be their last, and their next head injury could be what causes major brain trauma. It is sad to see that concussions are brought into storylines because of how real the effects are afterward their careers are over. We can only hope that in the end, those that take the risk aren’t going to compromise the life they will lead after their wrestling days are behind them.
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