Should WWE be fearful of the NFL concussion lawsuit?

More Wrestling Than Wrestling - The NFL's handling of the concussion crisis? (Photo by SteelCityHobbies on Flickr)

In what has been one of the most newsworthy weeks of the year so far in pro wrestling, between CM Punk "leaving" WWE with their top title beltSin Cara's suspension for a failed drug testTriple H replacing Vince McMahon as WWE's onscreen figurehead leader and Dana White's secretive meeting with Vince at WWE HQ, the most significant story long term may turn out to be one from an entirely different sporting field.  Both WWE and UFC should be very fearful of the ramifications and repercussions on their respective businesses of the lawsuit filed by 75 retired football players against the NFL for allegedly concealing from them the long term health risks of concussive blows to the head.

So what's the connection with WWE?  The work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who diagnosed Chris Benoit with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE, after he had examined his brain in a post-mortem examination is cited a couple of times in the lawsuit, which has been uploaded by Irv Muchnick on his website:

99.  In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist found Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of Hall of Famer, Mike Webster.

100.  By 2007, Dr. Omalu found a fourth case linking the death of a former NFL player to CTE brain damage from his football career.

101.  Dr. Omalu says that the brain damage he found in four ex-players who died is the same condition found in punch-drunk boxers.

102.  Around the same time, researchers without NFL ties surveyed retired football players and their findings showed that players who had multiple concussions were more likely to report being diagnosed with depression.

103.  Dr. Omalu questioned "Where was the NFL when we found this disease?"

127.  Between 2002 and  2007, Dr. Bennet Omalu examined the brain tissue of dead NFL players including Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andrew Waters and Justin Strzelczyk.  Dr. Omalu in an article in Neurosurgery  concluded that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy ("CTE") triggered by multiple NFL concussions played a partial cause of their deaths.

128.  In response to Dr. Omalu's article, the NFL acting thru the NFL's Brain Injury Committee, Drs. Ira Casson, Elliott Pellman and David Viano wrote a letter to the editor of Neurosurgery asking that Dr. Omalu's article be retracted.

That's not the only link, as the current medical director of WWE, Dr. Joseph Maroon, has also been the team neurosurgeon of the Pittsburgh Steelers for over 30 years (the same team that Webster, Long and Strzelczyk played for) and continues to work with the NFL's committee on head, neck and spine injuries.  His flawed ImPACT testing is used by both the NFL and WWE to assess when their athletes can return to work after suffering a concussion.  The wrestling media has become increasingly sceptical of Maroon's ImPACT test of late after Randy Orton passed it just five days after suffering a serious concussion last month.

More after the jump about how the NFL weren't the only ones to discredit Omalu's research.

The NFL hasn't been alone in their attempts to systematically discredit Omalu's groundbreaking research.  WWE has been at it too.  Last December, I covered how Jerry McDevitt was using the forum of Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter to poke holes at Omalu's conclusion that Chris Benoit was suffering from CTE at the time of his death.  McDevitt was at it again as recently as this week, presumably firing another nasty legal letter Meltzer's way as soon as he read the following description of Omalu in the June 20th subscriber only Wrestling Observer Newsletter:  

In the ever-evolving science of concussion research and understanding, Dr. Bennett Omalu, who is, within the medical world considered the No. 1 authority on concussions, believes that any athlete who suffers a concussion should be kept out of action for 90 days.  His reasoning is a concussion often involves head rotation, not limited to a blow to the skull, and that can cause tearing of brain tissue and can take 90 days for brain fluid to return to normal.

In this week's Observer, Meltzer divulged some of the contents of McDevitt's letter to him, which again tried to paint Omalu as some crackpot whose research should be completely disregarded:

McDevitt noted two cases where Omalu was not allowed to testify in court, one that had to do with head injuries.  That was in Pittsburgh after a woman suffered a tragic death being hit in the back of the head when the roof of a pavilion at an amusement park collapsed on her and knocked her head into an iron fence.  Omalu testified for the plaintiffs that the blows to the head did not kill the woman immediately, but that she suffered for one to five minutes.  Judge Stanton Wettick threw out his testimony saying there was no explanation that was logical for his conclusion that the death was not instantaneous.

To be fair to McDevitt, I too am sceptical of Omalu's pedigree as an academic researcher, but I certainly think he stumbled onto a real phenomenon in CTE by being the first person to examine dead footballers and wrestlers brains in depth.  His initial research has been corroborated by many other academics since then.  Just this week, research carried out in my home town of Glasgow has found the accumulation of proteins typically seen in dementia patients in a third of subjects that had just one head injury during their lifetimes.

So McDevitt's current tack of continuing to discredit Omalu's research could be a very risky strategy, especially if the retired players win their lawsuit against the NFL.  He could be opening up the WWE to their own lawsuit by retired wrestlers and the families of those wrestlers who passed away prematurely.  It is known that Chris Benoit's children still have several years left before the statute of limitations runs out on their ability to sue WWE for wrongful death.  If a lawsuit was filed, then WWE would probably have a harder time defending it than the NFL will do, due to the long trail of dead bodies and scripting their wrestlers to do dangerous stunts like taking chair shots to the head, falling off ladders and crashing through tables.  Scripting such reckless stunts for entertainment purposes would be bad enough, but sometimes they're scripted to punish the performers involved.  The perfect examples of this are Kanyon and Lance Cade who were both involved in similar punishment angles where they were bashed in the head with a steel chair designed to bury them before phasing them down and eventually out of the company.

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