Remember Chris Benoit?
In June 2007, he killed his wife and seven-year-old son, and then hanged himself. It was big news, briefly, because Benoit was a pro wrestler. But it was quickly forgotten for the same reason. Benoit didn't somersault into end zones for a living. He delivered diving head-butts and took hits to the back of his head with a metal chair. Benoit wasn't a warrior-athlete. He was a performer—a trash-culture one at that.
In at least one important sense, the distinction is arbitrary. Football players and pro wrestlers are both subject to the same laws of physics. No matter how thick and muscle-hardened their bodies, their brains remain fragile things, unprepared by evolution or exercise to be battered regularly against their skulls. An autopsy found that Benoit's brain at the time of death resembled that of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease. That's precisely the conclusion a neuropathologist reached after studying the brain of former NFL safety Andre Waters, who had killed himself several months earlier.
Waters is part of the roll call of former NFL players with prematurely degenerated brains who have taken their own lives. But pro wrestling had its own plague of CTE-related deaths, a succession of tabloid stories that passed almost instantly into our collective memory hole. Many of these wrestlers—the lives of a few are chronicled in David Shoemaker's excellent new book, The Squared Circle—were veterans of the sport's extreme era (or "Attitude Era," as wrestling euphemistically calls it).
It started in the mid-1990s, when Vince McMahon and Ted Turner owned rival wrestling promotions and were battling to distinguish their products. This predictably devolved into a competition over who could serve up the most violent matches. "It was a can-you-top-this mentality," said Wade Keller, who has covered pro wrestling since the 1980s.
Wrestling may be staged, but that doesn't mean it's an optical illusion. When a wrestler gets hit in the head with a chair—which became routine during the extreme era—he really is getting hit in the head with a chair. This is not exactly salutary for the brain. At the time, there may have been little scientific evidence that seemingly minor head trauma could lead to progressive brain degeneration, but was it really so difficult to surmise that all these body blows might end badly?
Wrestling writers like Keller agitated for reform, but the promoters ignored them. A longtime wrestler named Peter Polaco—fans know him as "Justin Credible"—told me that he remembers waking up after matches not knowing how he got home. He is 40 now and has suffered more than a dozen concussions over the course of his career. Hopefully, he has many years ahead of him, but he has already agreed to donate his brain to science when he's gone.
For years, pro wrestling denied any connection between violence inside the ring and medical trauma outside it. Like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, McMahon focused on protecting his product. He not only downplayed the role of CTE in Benoit's death, he erased Benoit from wrestling's history, editing his matches out of DVDs and redacting his name and numerous "championships" from the record books. (You can do this when your sport isn't actually a sport.)
But even a fantasy world can deny reality for only so long. In recent years, pro wrestling has taken steps to protect its employees. When one of the WWE's emerging talents, Dolph Ziggler, suffered a concussion earlier this year, he was prevented from wrestling, or even traveling, for six weeks. Chair shots to the head have been banned. Wrestlers themselves are now much more willing to tell opponents before a match what moves are off-limits.
"The new generation of wrestlers largely grew up watching their heroes die and learned the appropriate lessons, and WWE, the last standing major promotion, is invested—be it out of compassion or marketing, it really doesn't matter—in making sure its employees don't wreck their lives," Shoemaker wrote.
Can the same be said of the NFL? Professional football would surely love to make the game safer. It's not doing the league any good to have former stars publicly acknowledge that they are suffering early-onset dementia or depression, never mind shooting themselves to death. But the NFL is not the WWE. Its violence is not choreographed; it's spontaneous. Wresting can cut back on the number of hits to the head its performers endure, and still be "wrestling." Once football starts limiting contact between players, it basically becomes a different sport.
Football players are not cartoon superheroes acting out a scripted drama; they are athletes in the grip of competition, employed by owners who care less about making stars than winning games. That's why football is America's favorite pastime, and wrestling is a subculture. It's also why the WWE seems to be handling the concussion crisis better than the NFL.
Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.