The 2007 Benoit family tragedy was one of the most shocking and pivotal moments in WWE history. It pressured the corporation to expand their Wellness Policy, which now safeguards wrestlers against a range of health issues – notably concussions – and set them on the path of cleaning their public image, which had been blighted by drug related deaths and low brow storytelling throughout the previous decade.
Though they’ve always been reluctant to publicly acknowledge that Chris Benoit’s brain was found to be severely impaired from years of untreated in-ring concussions, WWE’s implementation of stringent ImPACT Testing is certainly related to these findings. One of many theories about why Benoit reached a state where he could murder his wife and son, before committing suicide, is that he had brain damage; so it’s understandable why WWE would downplay the research, yet encouraging that they’ve still responded to it.
Several other Chris Benoit theories exist. Some are based on real facts obtained from the investigation, though others lack supporting evidence or even basic logic. Some ideas were spread by the mainstream media, such as “roid rage”, while several conspiracy theories were explored by individuals on websites and Youtube, such as the idea that Chris was framed.
There are a few basic facts about the Benoit tragedy that are not in any way disputed. Unlike Elvis and Tupac Shakur, Chris Benoit, Nancy Benoit and their young son Daniel are sadly dead. Police discovered them in their home, their bodies were identified, autopsies were performed, and multiple institutions were involved at various points in handling them. All three were cremated in the presence of their family members.
With that out of the way let’s take a critical look at some of the most popular theories surrounding the case and separate the facts from the fiction.
(I have since created a video series to accompany this blog, which you can watch here. The videos have also been embedded throughout the post).
The most widely believed conspiracy theory is that former wrestler and booker Kevin Sullivan murdered Chris Benoit and his family (or hired hit men to do it) and framed the crime so Chris would get the blame. While no eye witness or physical evidence has ever been presented for this, it’s born out of the fact that Sullivan is Nancy’s ex-husband, so he may have been exacting revenge.
This was first put forth by Johnny Lee Clary, who wrestled as Johnny Angel in Arkansas during the 80s. He’s a very interesting figure – as explained on his website he went from being a Ku Klux Klan leader, causing controversy on the Oprah Winfrey and Morton Downey Jr shows, to a saved man who now preaches the word of God.
It was on this site that he published his Benoit theories, though the page has since been removed, suggesting he may no longer stand by what he wrote. The article is still preserved in various corners of the internet, including the God Like Productions conspiracy theory forum.
It is also quoted verbatim across two Youtube videos, the first that has been viewed almost a million times; demonstrating the amount of public interest in the matter.
Clary starts his piece by calling for us to “look at some facts”, but don’t expect him to actually do that. Instead he asserts that “it has been 10 years exactly since Nancy divorced Kevin Sullivan to marry Chris Benoit,” without providing any evidence. At face value this would mean they divorced in late June 1997, as the crimes took place between June 22–25, 2007.
What relevance their divorce has to the crime is not clear. Ten years would be no more significant than if it was 9 or 22 years, and there is no verifiable source online for their divorce date anyway. We could just as easily assume they divorced in early 1997 (Nancy had already left WCW by May), or much later since divorces take a lot of time to go through the courts. To say it was the “anniversary” of their divorce, or “exactly” 10 years is completely disingenuous.
Clary being a US citizen could have proven his point by obtaining the public records, but he didn’t.
Furthermore from an investigator’s perspective a wronged lover would be much more likely to get vengeance at the beginning of his wife’s affair or during a period of ongoing tension, not many years later when everybody involved had moved on with their lives and ceased contact.
“In the 1980’s Sullivan, along with his then-wife Nancy, were running a gimmick in wrestling of how they were Satanists, and Nancy was known as ‘The Fallen Angel.’ She later became known as ‘Woman.’ The trouble with the Satanists gimmick was it was for real, and was not a work, or fake.”
From what I can ascertain from scouring internet archives and interviews the only person to ever make the claim that Sullivan was a real satanist is the author of the article.
In one of Hulk Hogan’s many infamous foot-in-mouth comments he did suggest Nancy “was into devil-worship stuff,” but Nancy is not Kevin, and Hulk Hogan is renowned for running his mouth.
This so called devil worship was never mentioned by Nancy’s family, Benoit or his family, any other wrestlers that were involved with the gimmick, or worked with her and Sullivan, or most importantly Sullivan and Nancy themselves.
There are a lot of people who praised Sullivan’s talent and the fact that the gimmick was a heat magnet during a time when wrestlers weren’t doing things like that, but there is absolutely nothing to suggest they were real satanists.
There is also no record of Clary himself ever meeting Sullivan or Nancy during his modest career, meaning he had no first hand knowledge of the couple. Indeed he states: “According to a source close to me, Kevin Sullivan is a high ranking member of the Satanic Church.” This is second hand information from somebody that we don’t even know exists.
If this so called “source” is real, there’s no reason for them to be anonymous, as the “Satanic Church” is not a secret society, nor in the business of threatening people. High ranking members quite openly promote their association and the philosophy they follow. If Sullivan was a proud LaVeyan we’d probably know about it.
So to Mr. Source, where’s your proof?
When asked about the claim in a YouShoot interview Sullivan bluntly replied “that’s bullshit” and stated that he’s Irish Catholic. “I never said I was a satanist, and I’ve never been a satanist,” he went on to clarify.
That’s not to say it’s any of our business what Sullivan believes. And even if we take the baseless and denied accusation at face value, that gives us no more reason to think he’s a murderer than if he was a Star Wars fan. Last time I checked the Church of Satan is not a terrorist cell or a criminal organization. Though evangelists like Clary obviously have a very negative view on satanists, the truth is they’re not Devil worshipers. They don’t even believe God or the Devil exist.
“Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years!” – The Satanic Bible.
If we want to wrap it up in a bow, satanism is just colorful atheism. They use the metaphor of Satan from the bible to promote freedom, reason, and I suppose to antagonize close minded religious people. It was that kind of antagonism Sullivan was after when he used the gimmick, and it worked like a charm – people are still buying in to it!
Yet with all this talk of satanism, in watching some of his promos back on Youtube, you can’t really even characterize what he was doing as satanic. It was an amalgamation of various buzz words, horror movie themes, religious teachings and philosophies – from Freemasonry to Buddhism, to Caribbean Santería. Sometimes he was just nonsense babbling about “darkness”. Nothing about the character can be defined as “real”. Take a look for yourself.
The KKK leader turned preacher then goes on to claim: “Sullivan threatened Benoit and told him he would kill him.”
Again this seems to have just been pulled out of thin air. This time he doesn’t even mention a “source”. For all we know he could be referring to their on air feud, which although was closer to home than most wrestling storylines (in WCW Sullivan booked Nancy in to an affair with Benoit and it happened in real life), it’s not exactly something you can use as evidence for a real life crime many years later. It’s circumstantial at best.
“He is known for being a calculating, cold-hearted individual.”
Is he? He comes across as jovial and laid back in all of the non-character interviews I’ve watched and listened to. By definition if somebody is known for something, those around him would confirm it. For example Ric Flair is a known party animal, Jerry Lawler is known to like younger women, it is known that a lot of people in the business dislike Vince Russo’s style of show. Clary is just making things up.
“The police need to consider the possibility that Sullivan carried out these gruesome murders in order to have his revenge, which is what Satanists live for.”
Actually one of the Satanic Rules as written by Anton LaVey is “Do not harm little children.” That would seem to run counter to Clary’s theory that Sullivan could have murdered 7 year old Daniel.
Broadly speaking this is an intriguing theory … I mean who doesn’t like a good Devil worship story? However that’s all it is, a story. When you use basic logic, it quickly becomes apparent that all we have here are baseless assertions, mixed with the prejudices of a Christian-centric and superficial interpretation of satanism. Bollocks in other words.
There’s no evidence Sullivan was in any way involved. No eye witnesses, no forensics, no circumstantial evidence of him being in the area or having recently made contact, and no evidence that he threatened Benoit with his life at any point. There’s also no evidence that Sullivan was or is a satanist or any logical explanation of why that would even matter.
For fans to meander off in to this fantasy is disappointing. As for Clary it’s a shame anybody gives this man the time of day, especially as a religious figurehead.
Clary and Fox News pundits Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly also make reference to a possible connection between the Benoit deaths and the passing of Hall of Fame wrestling manager Sherri Martel. Clary writes that “Kevin Sullivan was also associated with Sherri Martel, who died just a few days before the bodies of Chris Benoit, and his family was found, and the full details of Martell’s death
have not been made known as of the time of this writing.“
In this clip Geraldo tells O’Reilly “Did you know a woman named Sherri Martel also died of unnatural causes related to drug use? Who is Sherri Martel? She is another woman connected to this group of professional wrestlers … and she died the same day Bill!”
It’s believed that Nancy was the first of the Benoits to die – on June 22nd, so this is actually 7 days following the death of Sherri, who we now know died of a prescription pain pill overdose. While she was friends with the Benoit family and managed Sullivan for a time, there is nothing to suggest Sherri’s death was anything other than her own doing – whether deliberate or accidental suicide.
We could logically speculate that the tragic news added to any depression and tension within Nancy and Chris’ relationship, but there is no physical connection between the deaths.
There may however be a connection in doctor. Sherri lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Benoit family home was in Fayetteville, in the neighboring state of Georgia. Following the tragedy it emerged that Benoit’s physician – Dr. Phil Astin, had been prescribing him with Testosterone and other prescription pills. In 2009 Astin was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for over-prescribing medications. It was noted that three of his patients died with his drugs in their system. These were Chris Benoit, ECW wrestler Johnny Grunge whose use of painkillers clashed with his sleep apnea, causing his death in 2006, and a third undisclosed name. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer believes this to be Sherri Martel.
This of course raises a lot of interesting issues, but nothing to support any conspiracy theories about Kevin Sullivan or a direct link between the deaths.
There’s a list of other points circulating around Facebook and forums, that supposedly hint towards a Benoit tragedy conspiracy. However most of them are irrelevant to the facts of the case, for example:
“Chris’ father said that Chris called him on father’s day and told him that he wished he could spend more time with his family but he had to work. One of Nancy’s friend says that Nancy Loved Chris and she had no plans to leave him.”
(Emotions are not always rational, and people don’t always say what they mean).
Other points make connections that hold no significance:
“The Benoit family was murdered the same week that the WWE had a story line of ‘Who killed Vince McMahon.’”
(The Vince McMahon angle involved him being blown up in a limo, which is in no way similar to the Benoit deaths. The storyline was also dropped after the tragedy.)
Some points in the list are outright false, including one claiming Chavo Guerrero was aware of an intruder at the Benoit residence:
Chavo Guerrero – a close friend of Benoit – told WWE magazine that he talked to Chris for while on Friday night on his house phone. About 45 minutes into the conversation, Chris told him that there was somebody knocking at his door and he was going to see who it was. Shortly after Chris answered the door, there was a “scuffle” and then his house phone line went dead. Chris could only be reached on his cell phone about 3 hours later. This is very significant. This explains why there was no forced entry. Chris let the killer or killers in.
There is no record of Chavo ever saying this in a WWE Magazine interview. In fact WWE made it their mission not to even mention Benoit publicly once they’d cooperated with the police and media in the immediate aftermath. WWEBackIssues.com catalogs the history of the magazine and there is no mention of an interview with Chavo in 2007 or in any subsequent issues.
Google also returns no reliable source for the information, other than from similar conspiracy theory discussions.
Chavo did appear on Greta Van Susteren’s On the Record show in July and revealed that he’d been in contact with Chris on the Saturday, the day after Nancy is said to have been killed, but he did not say anything about a scuffle or an intruder on the Friday.
Chavo said that at about 3:30pm EDT, he got a voicemail from Chris saying he overslept and missed his flight for a live event in Beaumont, Texas. Chavo returned the call and said Benoit “sounded odd and he left with a forced ‘I love you’ Chavo.”
“It was enough for me to hang up and think something wasn’t right,” he explained.
Chavo called him back again a few minutes later out of concern and Benoit said he’d been having a stressful day and that Nancy and Daniel had food poisoning. This was the last time they spoke. Benoit told another coworker the food poisoning story, and WWE officials that Nancy and Daniel were hospitalized because of it.
He subsequently missed the house show and early the following morning as widely reported in the media, Chavo and other coworkers (one being referee Scott Armstrong) received bizarre text messages from both Chris and Nancy’s cell phones:
3:53 AM – Chris Benoit’s cell phone: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayeteville Georgia. 30215″
3:53 AM – Chris Benoit’s cell phone: “The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open.”
3:54 AM – Nancy Benoit’s cell phone: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayeteville Georgia. 30215″
3:55 AM – Nancy Benoit’s cell phone: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayeteville Georgia. 30215″
3:58 AM – Nancy Benoit’s cell phone: “My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayeteville Georgia. 30215″
At the time WWE also made a lot of information available. The New York Daily News summarized that WWE officials went on to make “several attempts to contact Benoit via phone and text messages, as well as, the local hospitals in the Atlanta area. As of 11:00 p.m. Sunday night there was no contact made with Benoit.” This was the night of WWE Vengeance, where he was scheduled to beat CM Punk for the ECW title.
The report sourced from WWE (available in full on their corporate website) continues with a timeline from the Monday …
WWE was notified of text messages sent to the two co-workers.
WWE contacted the Fayette County Sheriff’s office and requested them to go to Benoit’s residence.
WWE received a call from the Fayette County Sheriff’s office, advising that they entered the house of Benoit and found 3 deceased bodies (a male, a female and a child). The Fayette County Sheriff’s office has secured the house as a “major crime scene” and that the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office had no further information.
There is no publicly available information to suggest that anybody in contact with Chris Benoit, including Chavo, heard or even believed that there was an intruder. Now obviously Benoit’s coworkers concluded he was acting strangely by missing events and sending the text messages, but that does not mean there was a wider conspiracy and none of them have expressed views of that nature since.
Do you think if Chavo – one of Benoit’s closest friends – really heard an intruder, that he would keep it secret? Or if he did do this mythical WWE Magazine interview that this would be the last we would of heard of it?
There is one piece of information that has not been fully investigated, and that’s the sighting of then WWE talent Dave Taylor outside the Benoit residence, shortly before the police arrived.
Benoit’s neighbour Holly Schrepfer was the first port of call after WWE had contacted the authorities and they’d decided to investigate. She was instructed by police to enter the property before they got there, secure the dogs that were running around the yard and check on the Benoits. To her shock she discovered the bodies, and upon fleeing the house she claims to have seen Dave Taylor and his wife Lisa carrying a platter of deli food toward the house.
Of course this certainly doesn’t mean Dave Taylor was in any way involved – having heard the family had been sick and his friend no showed some dates, it’s likely he was just checking up on them and making sure there was some food in.
The anomaly stems from the fact that this incident was never revisited by the authorities and Dave Taylor has since denied it. In his book Chris & Nancy, wrestling critic Irvin Muchnick was a bit more cynical, suggesting Taylor may have been sent by WWE to lurk around and get certain facts early to prevent a PR problem.
It has been suggested that individuals within WWE may have become aware that Benoit was probably responsible but went ahead with the Tribute Show on the Monday regardless. In his tribute message William Regal was reluctant to comment on Chris the man, and only referenced his wrestling career. On his podcast Chris Jericho speculated that Regal may have known something.
But remember, knowing what likely went down (or assuming) before it was circulated in the media is not the same as being involved in the crime itself!
Perhaps the most intriguing mystery surrounding the tragedy is the case of a Wikipedia entry that announced Nancy Benoit’s death some 12 or so hours prior to the police discovering the bodies.
The edit as preserved by Wikipedia’s revision history, occurred at 12:01am EDT following the Vengeance PPV. It reads:
“Chris Benoit was replaced by Johnny Nitro for the ECW Championship match at Vengeance, as Benoit was not there due to personal issues, stemming from the death of his wife Nancy.”
What made this even more suspicious was that the IP address of the user who made the edit was based in Stamford, Connecticut, the same town as WWE’s corporate headquarters.
“I just want to say that it was an incredible coincidence” posted the user later on WikiNews.org.
He continues: “I had heard about Chris Benoit no showing Vengeance because of a family emergency, and I had heard rumors about why that was. I was reading rumors and speculation about this matter online, and one of them included that his wife may have passed away, and I did the wrong thing by posting it on wikipedia to spite there being no evidence.”
Police traced the IP address to the home of a local teenager and determined the incident was most likely a coincidence. The Associated Press reported:
The Wikipedia poster who flummoxed investigators by announcing the death of wrestler Chris Benoit’s wife before police discovered the murder is a 19-year-old Stamford man and wrestling fan, authorities said. The man, who lives with his parents on the East Side, allowed detectives to take his computer and videotape their interview with him Friday, police said. “He was very cooperative,” said Capt. Richard Conklin, head of the detective bureau. He will not face charges, police said. It appears the posting was a coincidence, just as the man said Friday in an anonymous apology on Wikinews, police in Stamford and Georgia said yesterday.
From what can be pulled from media reports the teenager and his parents did not work for WWE and had no direct connection to the company, the Benoit family or any wrestlers. As fans can attest, the world of online wrestling news is often speculative and it’s quite reasonable to assume that the guy read up about Benoit’s absence from the PPV and either jumped to conclusions or quoted some unsourced speculation. Wiki users have pointed out that the user had a habit of vandalizing pages.
The fact that the edit took place before police found the bodies, rather than the period between discovery and public announcements (when WWE may have found out), suggests it was a coincidence rather than a situation where the teen had early access to information.
To claim he was in on the murders themselves would require additional evidence linking him to the crime scene and the victims, which simply does not exist. It would also be a pretty dumb move to openly let the world know on Wikipedia.
As shown at the end of my video above, you can watch the recorded police interview with the teen. This was acquired by Irvin Muchnick.
The theory most widely propagated by the mainstream media is that Chris Benoit suffered “roid rage”, an alleged side effect of steroid use that results in bursts of anger. Naturally the corporate news networks, who already have the tried and tested ratings formula of following the steroid angle in regard to competitive sports, had somewhat of a field day with this notion. They invited on ex-wrestlers to interrogate them on their own steroid use, and some outlets even went as far as to speculate that Chris Benoit had been juicing little Daniel because he was small for his age.
While it’s hard to pinpoint where this idea came from, it may have been a simple reporting error, confusing track marks on Chris’ arms with Daniel.
Nancy’s sister Sandra explained in an interview in June, 2013:
“When my sister filed for divorce, we had a legal document created that gave me custody of Daniel if anything happened to Nancy and Chris simultaneously. So when Daniel died, I was his custodian. He did not have track marks on his arms and the District Attorney made a public statement apologizing for the mistake. As his custodian, I obtained his medical records and our lawyer, Rick Decker, made a statement to the public – the only one made – letting them know that that was 100% false information.”
She also confirmed that Daniel Benoit did not suffer from growth problems or Fragile X Syndrome.
“Daniel did not have Fragile X. I have his medical records. He was NOT sick.”
Does Roid Rage Exist?
The idea that Chris Benoit carried out the murders in a fit of “roid rage” is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because medical experts still debate about whether the phenomenon even exists, or if it does exist that it’s solely down to steroids and not preexisting mental disorders or a negative effect of combining them with other substances. There is no reliable scientific data on the matter.
“Anticipation of the aggressiveness related to steroid use may lead to actual violent acts and become, in effect, an excuse for aggression,” write Dr. Yesalis and Michael S. Bahrke, PhD, of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
“Is there a causal relationship between ‘roid rage’ and steroids? I don’t believe so,” he says.
Accounts of what was found in Benoit’s home are also sketchy because the investigators and media often used the catch-all term of “steroids”, rather than the actual substance listed on the packaging. Steroids are not one thing and their individual effects vary.
Regardless of what was or wasn’t discovered, testosterone was the only steroid actually present in his body according to the toxicology report, which means it’s the only substance that can even be considered in a roid rage theory.
Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone, produced in the male testis. Using it is not necessarily the same as using typical bodybuilder steroids.
“Although testosterone was found in Christopher Benoit’s urine, there is no evidence of any other of the illegal types of steroids, or the whole laundry list of anabolic steroids that are out there to be used,” said the medical examiner. “The presence of the testosterone alone even could be an indicator that he was being treated for testicular insufficiency,” rather than being jacked to the gills. This is a common procedure for older males or former abusers of steroids who can no longer produce it by themselves.
Furthermore while it’s long been believed that testosterone results in male aggression, modern studies show that on its own, elevated levels are not conducive to aggression.
Conclusion: Supraphysiological doses of testosterone, when administered to normal men in a controlled setting, do not increase angry behavior – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8855834
In fact some data suggests it is those low in testosterone that exhibit anger, and replacement therapy restores balance.
When the men were given testosterone replacement therapy, and were asked to complete questionnaires about their moods several times over the course of two months of treatment, their general sense of well-being improved markedly. Their anger and agitation decreased, their sense of optimism and friendliness heightened – New york Times, 1995.
Furthermore recent studies suggest elevated testosterone levels can result in better thought out and fairer decisions, rather than rash and risky behavior as previously assumed.
New scientific evidence refutes the preconception that testosterone causes aggressive, egocentric, and risky behavior. A study at the Universities of Zurich and Royal Holloway London with more than 120 experimental subjects has shown that the sexual hormone with the poor reputation can encourage fair behaviors if this serves to ensure one’s own status – Sceience Daily, 2009.
It’s fair to say the overall picture is inconclusive, and there are too many variables to categorically claim roids equal rage without taking in to account other factors. The medical examiner at the time concluded that “Essentially, I think it’s an unanswerable question.”
In Benoit’s case the media overlooked other evidence that actually coming off steroids may cause depression and mood problems, though again this is inconclusive. WWE claimed he was clean of both anabolic steroids and testosterone when tested in the April, and toxicology suggests he’d only taken testosterone recently before the tragedy. If anything Benoit was on the least amount of steroids he’d been on in years, and we could just as logically argue that this played a role in his poor mental state.
The fact that the crime took place over three days, Nancy was bound, Daniel was sedated and bibles were placed next to their bodies, demonstrates he was in a deranged and depressive state, but with the ability to plan and premeditate. A note was later discovered which read “I’m preparing to leave this Earth” – the key word being “preparing”. This was clearly not a burst of rage, but a deeper psychological problem.
Toxicology also found that Benoit’s system contained a combination of Xanax, a powerful psychoactive anti-anxiety and depression drug, and Hydrocodone, an addictive semi-synthetic opioid derived painkiller, that bares relation to Heroin.
Side effects of Xanax include a loss on inhibitions, memory and concentration problems, drowsiness, and in some people aggression, rage, mania, suicidal thoughts and hallucinations. As weird as it sounds a very common effect of anti anxiety and depression medication is more anxiety and depression.
Side effects of Hydrocodone can also include changes in mood and anxiety.
Empty bottles suggested alcohol was also a factor, though we can’t say for sure because it would have already left the bodies before toxicology was performed.
To conclude, there is a wide range of possible factors that played a role in determining Benoit’s mental state, “roid rage” is only one of them, and it’s not even strongly supported by the evidence.
Tests carried out on Chris Benoit’s deceased brain conclude that he had severe brain damage at the time of his death. Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University summarized that this was comparable to an “85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”
This could not have been from steroid use.
Science Daily reported in September, 2007, that results showed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in all four main regions of Benoit’s brain, which is caused by repeated head trauma:
According to the examinations, Mr. Benoit’s brain exhibited large amounts of abnormal Tau protein, manifested as Neurofibrillary Tangles (NFTs) and Neuropil Threads [NTs]. These represent aggregates of abnormal Tau protein, which are remnants of the cytoskeleton of the brain cells and their connections. Frequent NFTs and NTs were distributed in all regions of the brain including the neocortex, the limbic cortex, subcortical ganglia and brainstem ganglia accompanied by loss of brain cells. Accumulation of abnormal Tau protein in the form of NFTs and NTs in the brain has been confirmed to cause neurodegeneration, cognitive impairment and dementia.
This expresses itself in memory problems, depression, aggression, erratic and abnormal behavior, and is believed to have contributed to a number of suicides. Though CTE can only be fully diagnosed after the sufferer has passed away, these symptoms have been observed retroactively after diagnosing a number of deceased professional athletes. As well as Chris Benoit, Andrew “Test” Martin who overdosed on prescription pills in 2009, also had CTE.
Among wrestling circles it is suggested that no other profession shows the same rate of premature death of its workers. However the NFL is not that far behind and they are ahead of wrestling in terms of CTE data. More than 20 former NFL veterans have been diagnosed, many who died early, committed suicide or acted abnormally in their latter years.
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman player Justin Strzelczyk led police on a 40 mile high-speed chase through central New York at speeds up to 100 mph on the wrong side of the highway, which resulted in an explosive crash and his death. He was just 36 years old and had been telling relatives he was hearing voices from “the evil ones”. He also had CTE.
The concept is now so widely known in football circles that when former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson killed himself by gunshot to the chest in 2011, he left a suicide note requesting his brain be examined like his deceased peers.
The underlying factor between all those diagnosed with CTE is that had a history of concussions. Not just one or two, but where it was a regular result of their activity. These concussions were often overlooked and untreated.
Suplexes, flying headbutts, and unprotected chair shots to the front and back of the head, were all commonplace in the “Rabid Wolverine” Chris Benoit’s stiff matches, and likely contributed to his brain damage. He displayed a number of strange behaviors prior to the tragedy that could be attributed to CTE, including depression, aggression in the marriage, and taking different routes to the airport – paranoid he was being followed. Nancy’s sister recalled that he would also find “30 different routes to drive to the gym”, so his movements couldn’t be monitored.
The paper Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a professional wrestler, by those who studied Benoit’s brain, makes note of a diary that his father Michael made available, which included “numerous references to depression and to memory lapses”.
“It’s plain that he was depressed. It’s plain that he was beginning to exhibit some of the signs of the dementia that’s associated with the brain injuries he sustained because he talks in there about not being able to remember things,” Michael’s lawyer would tell an Atlanta news affiliate.
The tests on Benoit’s brain were backed by independent research foundation the Sports Legacy Institute, whose president is former WWE wrestler and Harvard sociology graduate Chris Nowinski.
The Tough Enough reality show contestant, who debuted as the arrogant “Harvard Chris” character on TV in 2002, didn’t even have a full year on the main roster before he retired of his own accord due to post-concussion symptoms, caused by taking knocks in the ring. Unlike Nowinski, Benoit was of an old school mentality that considered working hurt a badge of honor.
Upon leaving wrestling Nowinksi switched his focus to studying the effects of concussions, first with reference to the NFL and then later his former profession, following the Benoit tragedy.
He discussed the findings in an interview with Busted Open Radio in 2012:
We incorporated Sports Legacy ten days before the Benoit tragedy. A year prior to that I sat down with Benoit when I was still working for the company for the Smackdown Your Vote campaign, in the locker room in Manchester, New Hampshire and he just started asking me questions about the book. ‘So what are you finding that is happening long term?’ Things like that. He was more interested than any other wrestler which helps me realize that he actually knew there was something wrong with him. He asked me about how many concussions I had and I asked him and he said ‘Well I had more concussions than I can count.’ If you knew Chris, you knew he wouldn’t take a day off for anything … he told me to give him a call.
I remember months later, I was intimidated by him because he was Champion and I was young. I called him and he acted like he didn’t know why I was calling (after he gave me his number). So I thought maybe there was a memory thing or maybe a mood thing going on. So when it happened, knowing how other guys died from this disease had similar falls from grace and knowing what a great guy he was when he was in his prime or when I met him at 35, I knew I had to contact Michael Benoit, his father. So I tracked down Michael Benoit and I said, ‘Listen I’m not telling you an answer, but this may have played a role and we need to find out what the answer is.’ Mike, thank God, agreed and helped put this whole thing in perspective.
Perhaps the reason why there are so many theories about the Benoit family tragedy is that the possible reasons behind what Chris did are not easy to understand and are somewhat open to interpretation. While the rational amongst us can discount baseless accusations like “Kevin Sullivan the satanist did it”, when we get in to the minutia of toxicology, steroid studies, drug effects, and CTE; things get more complicated. There isn’t a simple sentence answer to help us sleep at night.
For the sake of scientific integrity what we cannot do is use emotional cop-outs like “he was evil”, and leave it at that. Likewise attributing hate and anger towards an irrational act like the Benoit tragedy is itself irrational. After all the fact that he did these horrific things should make it obvious that he was in a defective mental state. You and I cannot possibly comprehend “why” he did what he did, because we are operating on a different reality. The whole point is to understand what caused that mental state.
Although Humans like to put events in the context of choice – in fact the whole legal system is dependent on the concept of free will – scientifically speaking, free will is an illusion of consciousness. You are only free to make decisions based on your environment, your frame of reference and your brain’s physical ability to interpret information. Damage any of these and negative things will happen.
If you’re born in to poverty and violence with no positive role model, unless other circumstances somehow present themselves, you’re probably going to become another crime statistic. Your environment and frame of reference severely skewed your ability to make positive choices.
A child born with severe autism that experiences love and stability their whole life, will still be unable to function in society at the same level as somebody without autism. The physical makeup of their brain impedes their ability to interpret information and connect with reality.
I think it’s highly unlikely that Chris Benoit woke up one morning and simply decided that over the next few days he was going to kill his family. Years of untreated concussions altered his ability to interpret information and make positive choices. This poor mental state was possibly compounded by long term steroid use and short term prescription drug use, as well as alcohol. If you factor in a highly stressed work and family environment, such as WWE’s grueling schedule, a tumultuous marriage and responsibility of a child, and his constant state of bereavement at the loss of his close friends, the tragedy becomes less shocking.
We’re never going to know exactly all of the factors that played a role, but Benoit wasn’t evil, he was broken. His final actions were the result of a diseased mind in an environment that wasn’t conducive to recovery. Thankfully unlike the concept of evil, mind and environment are very real things that can be altered for the better.
That’s why WWE’s slow but sure implementation of concussion monitoring and drug testing is such a positive move, as is the limiting of more dangerous in-ring maneuvers like unprotected chair shots to the head, and the offering of free rehab for all current and former contracted talent. As fans we may still lust for a more violent style of wrestling, but is it really worth it at the detriment of the performers’ long term health? As much as people like to blame Vince McMahon for treating his circus animals poorly, we encouraged him by paying for his show – now he’s doing the right thing we need to embrace it.
While the company have kept Chris Nowinski at an arms length, never publicly accepting their role in the destruction of Benoit’s brain, 2013 marked a major turning point in their relationship. WWE donated $1.2 million to the Sports Legacy Institute to fund further research in to CTE. In October they will receive the organization’s Impact Award, for their commitment to solving the concussion epidemic.
The sheer amount of wrestlers that have been taken out of the ring in the past year due to concussions is as good a sign as any that they’re now taking things seriously.
However that doesn’t mean there isn’t still progress to be made. Protecting against concussions removes one of the cogs that likely leads to a wrestler’s downward spiral. Testing current performers for drugs and steroids removes another. Offering free rehab to those that were spat out by the machine may pull some veterans out of that spiral. But there is still one cog left.
Wrestlers only get hooked on alcohol and pain pills because they’re in physical pain or because they’re in emotional pain. They don’t call it the grueling WWE schedule for nothing.
Have you ever gone on vacation, got jet-lag, found it hard to sleep in the hotel bed because it’s unfamiliar, and been absolutely exhausted by time you made it home? WWE wrestlers go through that every single day, while taking damaging bumps in the ring on top of it. They get very little time to fully recuperate or even visit their families. WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart explains on his website:
Traditional sports have an off-season but me and the boys were on the road 300 days a year. As a former WWF (now WWE) champion I travelled the world for 23 years straight, 1978 to 2000, wrestling every night, sometimes more than once, plus promotional appearances and working out. It takes over your life 24/7 and, especially before cellphones and email, no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible not to become distant from my family, my kids. Most, maybe all, the boys suffered the same isolation, and soon strangers became family and family became strangers. Almost all who escaped came back, having no clue how to make it on the outside.
There’s no off season in wrestling, but there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be.
WWE has more than enough talent to cover their current schedule, while giving them an extended break once a year. If it’s done in cycles where only X amount are on a break at any given time, with the top stars never all off together, fans probably won’t even notice. That being said a traditional off season – perhaps at the end of the year – would not destroy their business. They have copious amounts of programming in the archives to show reruns, best ofs, or documentaries for a few weeks. They could even tape content ahead of time, so the viewing audience isn’t interrupted.
A wrestler who has time to fully heal nagging injuries and bond with their family and friends, is a happy wrestler. While some people will always be depressives and addicts, the removal of this final cog would make it virtually impossible for the same environment and factors to emerge that would create a new Chris Benoit.
WWE made the right decision to initially erase Chris Benoit from their product. Over time (and it looks like they’re headed that way) including him in an archival context, while not singling him out, is just part of history. However I will always be opposed to the idea of celebrating his accomplishments or inducting him in to the Hall of Fame. Though we can argue that certain unforeseen factors gave rise to the tragedy, and we should embrace scientific understanding of these, praising him in any way will always have an element of glorification and is not fair on the family of Nancy and others who he affected.
There is also an inextricable link between the way Chris Benoit wrestled and the risks he took, with the deterioration of his brain and the tragedy. Celebrating what made him great is almost condoning what made him a monster.
What should be put on a pedestal are organizations like the Sports Legacy Institute. Let’s induct Chris Nowinski and WWE’s doctors in to the Hall of Fame. Lets glorify the lessons learned from the tragedy.
If we can’t do that, then Benoit’s legacy really does go to waste, and the innocent lives of Nancy and little Daniel meant nothing.