These days, it’s become a media staple to look back on somber anniversaries and ask what’s almost become a clichéd question: what have we learned since? Whether they are moments where society at-large can’t help but to avoid the remembrances of or the passing of time of an intense, but localized, tragedy, there’s a tendency to wonder what has changed since tears were shed and anger was thick in the air. More than anything, these “what since” write-ups also bring us back to those moments to either re-invoke the emotions or shed a retrospective light on something we might have missed.
In the case of these words, it’s on an anniversary most in the mainstream have forgotten over the last five years because … well, most of you couldn’t care less about "sports entertainment."
Five years ago this weekend, Chris Benoit – a surprising and enduring star in the unforgiving wrestling industry – killed his wife, Nancy, his son, Daniel, and eventually took his own life.
If you remember the news and the subsequent media cycle that fed upon them back then, you probably feel a knot in your stomach. If you don’t, then maybe you’ll recognize how it amplified a couple of sports’ greatest controversies.
The reactions when news initially broke were fast, furious and ferocious. Most, if not all viewers of three-hour WWE Monday Night RAW that June 25th were probably thinking that this was an attack on the Benoit family that ended in such unimaginable ways. However, as details were presented towards the final hour the broadcast, it was as if everything wrestling fans ever knew about “The Wolverine,” the highest regarded technician of his era … the too-short-for-main-event-status grappler turned champion … the star of very humbling beginnings … was about to be thrown out of the window.
In order to distance itself from the crime and the man while placating a seething public, the WWE essentially pulled a page from the NCAA and scrubbed any and all inklings of Benoit from its active media as if he didn’t exist. Yet, that wasn’t all as the aftermath slowly forced some adjustments; one large in scale such as upgrading its Wellness Policy, others a bit more subtle like banning chair shots to the head from the belief that CTE was the culprit in Benoit’s destructive final days.Array
CTE had made ripples in recent years before Benoit’s murder-suicide, though the names of former players who were posthumously diagnosed didn’t ring a bell to the masses at first. In 2002, CTE was discovered in the brains of Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Tom McHale, Andre Waters and Mike Webster; the latter being the lone Hall of Famer of the group as the center who anchored the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. Yet, one can argue (one being this Scribe) that what the Benoit murder-suicide did to shine a spotlight on the neurological disease goes largely unnoticed because he wasn’t a football player.
Though a large part of CTE awareness is due to the deaths of many former athletes along with the active-before-death Derek Boogard, the efforts of Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute – the latter co-founded by former WWE wrestler Christopher Nowinski – seemed to have thrust the disease into the sports’ conscious. Nowinski founded the institute not long after his mainstream media discussions on Benoit. These days, you may have heard about him in relation to Junior Seau's suicide this spring.
Certainly, that’s not the only connection this tragedy had to the sports we generally discuss here because those days found greater governmental efforts to stem steroid & performance-enhancer use in athletes. Shortly after Eddie Guerrero’s death the prior year, the WWE implemented that wellness policy, but it was after the Benoit murder-suicide that Congress – riding the momentum of a still-debated intervention into steroid/PED use in sports – requested that the promotion hand over material in relation to it. Where baseball and the NFL have had their dealings with Congress regarding foreign substances, the WWE was essentially an easier target thanks to the infamous investigations in the 1990s and the harrowing list of deaths of retired and active wrestlers.
The immediate torrent of former WWE employees may have sounded like sour grapes or the cable news networks driving the narrative, but there was no question that millions were reminded that the wrestling industry is one that can do quite a bit of damage if one isn’t careful. Just ask Scott Hall, a living example of the highs and lows it brings as the E:60 profile revealed.
It’s taken a while, with some smoothing to do, but the WWE has emerged from the wreckage thanks to this early stage of the Reality Era, ushered in by a brilliantly worked shoot last July. While it was a second promo from CM Punk that probably opened up this five-year-old wound for some, it also demanded that the WWE at least try to bring back a small part of the televised recklessness that brought the company – and industry – its greatest success.
Yet, some matters either remain unresolved or are still works in progress. The idea of the industry cleaning itself is a pipe dream, at best, even if selective enforcement catches star wrestlers like Randy Orton or Rey Mysterio more than others. Brain injury is still guaranteed, just as it is in football, hockey or the combat sports.
However, to this day, there are plenty of wrestling fans who struggle to recognize Benoit in the light he once basked in. He’s the “yeah, but” to their dream matches or the “sick bastard” they growl at when watching old clips on YouTube.
Even worse is that so many who worked with him, whether as a fellow performer, a business associate, or maybe folks that sold his merchandise, have a hard time letting the last three days of his life undo years of seemingly positive relationships. His is a most complicated legacy that family, friends, fans or even time can’t provide a complete perspective on.
One thing is certain in these five years. The aftershocks are still rumbling, even if for many, they are barely noticed anymore.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.