Fans and people inside the industry are usually pleased when the mainstream media gives pro wrestling some attention. To some, it serves as a way to legitimize the whole endeavor.
That being said, those same people can’t be too happy with the press a bunch of wrestlers have been getting over the past few days. When Sports Illustrated reporters Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim broke the story about the latest findings in the investigation of a steroid distribution ring, they didn’t hesitate to name names. It just so happens that those names belong to Randy Orton, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Edge and Gregory Helms. Then, the Associated Press, ESPN.com, Fox Sports and just about anyone who had a sports-related website picked up the story.
I suppose such an article is intended to solicit feelings of outrage. As any baseball fan knows, steroids have been a cause célèbre of the sports media for the better part of this decade. Eleven pro wrestlers named in a sting of an illicit drug network… that’s just the type of juicy, sensational headline that is the journalistic equivalent of one of Mick Foley’s famous cheap pops.
Some may be upset when they read the story, but to call it something that will “rock the sports world” (as one internet headline has already claimed) is going way too far. I’ll stop short of saying it’s not news, because steroids are, in most cases, against the law. But as far as pro wrestling is concerned, it is, as my editor Greg Oliver put it, a non-story.
To understand why, consider the two groups of readers who come across one of the articles. The first group consists of mainstream sports fans who read Sports Illustrated or ESPN.com regularly and don’t care for wrestling. In their minds, wrestlers are just jacked-up muscle-heads participating in a scripted farce.
It only confirms the preconceived notions of these folks when they find out wrestlers are taking steroids. At worst, it gives them another reason to turn their noses up at people who do enjoy wrestling. For this group, Llosa and Wertheim are preaching to the choir.
The other group, of course, is made up of wrestling fans. I’d be very surprised if anyone except the youngest and most innocent of regular viewers is floored by the revelation that some of the biggest names in the industry are taking something to help them out.
Expecting performers who have no time for normal workout and recovery periods to have bodies that look like they are chiseled out of granite without any chemical assistance? That requires either an enormous dose of denial or an equally large amount of naiveté. If the modern wrestling schedule was carried out without any steroids, human growth hormone or the like, we’d likely have a whole roster full of guys with bodies like Foley.
With all due respect to Mick, something tells me the industry would not be as large as it is today if that was the case. Perhaps it’s pressure from wrestling fans who want their grapplers to look like Greek gods that makes some of them take steroids despite the risks, but that’s a separate issue. What’s relevant to this discussion is that most of the public isn’t going to be surprised by the findings of the SI.com report.
That brings us back to the motivation for airing out the names of the wrestlers in the first place, and here’s where some questions are raised. The last time SI.com covered pro wrestling for any reason other than a performer’s ties to mainstream sports was back in June 2006, when Arash Markazi did a piece on WrestleMania 22. Outside of an occasional mention in one of Bill Simmons’ columns (and he’s been a WWE fan since his youth), I couldn’t find the last one on ESPN.com.
If the inherent hypocrisy isn’t clear, I’m more then happy to spell it out. Most of the time, pro wrestling is more entertainment than sport for these publications and their websites. Now that steroids are involved, wrestling is conveniently a sport, pro wrestlers are referred to as athletes and Orton’s name gets top billing in the headlines.
The WWE brass often gives off the impression that any publicity is good publicity, but their actions show that they can sometimes be swayed by negative press. Now that we’ve explored the reasons why the fallout from the SI.com report are unlikely to sway many opinions, all that’s left is to see if the people running the federation agree.
It’s tough to see what more the WWE can do — at least publicly. The company line already states that performance-enhancing drugs are against the rules, and the Wellness Policy is in place. If the fed wants to do anything else to stop its employees from taking steroids or HGH, it will have to be a philosophical change that takes place behind the scenes.
For what it’s worth, I think that would be a good idea. I happen to share the opinion that using steroids can be harmful to the human body, and I think it’s reasonable to suspect that their widespread use has contributed to the abnormal number of former wrestlers who pass away at relatively young ages. If it takes the sudden interest of reporters who normally wouldn’t touch wrestling to make a change, then the problem is much worse than I ever imagined.
It might be hypocritical for wrestling fans to look the other way knowing the men they’re cheering are taking potentially harmful substances just to entertain them. But isn’t it just as bad for members of the press to call attention to the wrestling business only when a steroid scandal is on the table? I’m not sure what it says about us as a society, but I think that it is.