Every week or so, the Masked Man honors the wrestling's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Lance Cade, who died on Friday of heart failure. He was 29. Already his death has become an issue in former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's Senate campaign.
On Friday, a professional wrestler named Lance McNaught died. His death was supposedly due to heart failure; indisputable is that he was only 29 years old. McNaught wrestled primarily in the WWE under the moniker "Lance Cade," and at various times he certainly seemed to be a climber, a statuesque Texas boy with headliner potential. But that wasn't to be. Despite the fact that he was trained by living legend Shawn Michaels, who had plenty of sway in the WWE locker room until his retirement this year, and notwithstanding the fact that Cade certainly looked the part, he never ascended as high as it seemed he might. He was a three-time tag-team champion, but that was largely in an era in which the tag belts were an afterthought — although it's worth noting that each team broke up with the expectation that Cade would go on to singles prominence, and each time, for one reason or another, it didn't happen.
Which is all to say that he wasn't exactly a megastar. His passing, while tragic, resulted in something less than an emotional outpouring on the message boards over the weekend. He was the quintessential also-ran, but in part because his death came in the midst of former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's bid for the Senate, and because it could be put to immediate political use, Lance Cade's fate has touched on a deeper symbolism: the failure of leadership, institutional irresponsibility, a culture of megalomania run amok, a deceptively fragile young man caught up in the throes of it all.
Last week, three days before Cade's death, McMahon, the wife of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, won Connecticut's Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. Senate. From the start of her campaign, McMahon's WWE backstory made her an unlikely contender; between the federation's louche storylines to McMahon's own on-screen role (one that her primary opponent gleefully capitalized on in a campaign commercial), she seemed a long shot to be taken seriously. But after spending $22 million of her own money in the primary, McMahon finds herself the Republican option in a bad year for Democrats, and at last count she was trailing her opponent Richard Blumenthal by only 7 points. The Democratic National Committee has already labeled McMahon "a candidate who kicks men in the crotch, thinks of scenes of necrophilia as ‘entertainment,' and runs an operation where women are forced to bark like dogs."
Of course, this charge is opportunistic claptrap, nothing more. McMahon is in the entertainment business, and none of the above would seem out of place in, say, a summer movie. The people at the DNC know this; in trying to make electoral hay out of wrestling's fantasyland, they're only highlighting their own cynicism. Sure, the line in pro wrestling between fiction and reality is negligible enough that an old video of McMahon's crotch-kicking is bound to lend a comic air to the political proceedings. But there are serious issues to be addressed about McMahon's time with the WWE, and they are rooted not so much in the way Lance Cade died as in the way he lived.
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Perhaps "institutional" is too strong a word — particularly since the WWF steroid trials of 1994 — but it's probably fair to call the use and abuse of PEDs and related drugs inescapable. The life of a pro wrestler is a particularly unforgiving one: They can wrestle upward of 200 nights a year with only a few days off each week. Serious injuries of course require time off, and the WWE usually covers medical bills, but time away from the spotlight can wreak enduring damage on a performer's career, and so working through nagging pain is a necessary part of the job. Think the NFL, minus pads and an offseason. And a players union.
It wasn't long ago that juiced-up Adonises dominated the top ranks of the WWE. (Some would say that the John Cena-Batista feuds in recent years are evidence that little has changed.) There certainly have been stories in the past about Vince McMahon suggesting that wrestlers go "on the gas" to help their look. And the steroids are only one end of a vicious cycle of self-medication: The grinding schedule necessitates painkillers and sleeping pills to aid in recovery, and those require uppers so you can be ready to go again the next day. Add to that the inevitable impulses of being young and wealthy, living a life on the road in a bawdy boys club, and the potential for myriad chemical abuses comes into stark focus. If it's not exactly the East German Olympic team, it's certainly a culture of excess, one full of destructive incentives. Some of the responsibility has to fall on the McMahons.
This is where Lance Cade's death has particular import. Because Cade, like so many of the other wrestlers who have died over the past 15 years, was addicted at various times to painkillers and sleeping pills, and earlier this year he went to rehab for (reportedly) the second time. The WWE paid for his first trip to rehab, and while that in and of itself doesn't make the organization culpable, it's an implicit recognition that Cade's health did in some way fall under the WWE's purview.
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These issues have their origins in the birth of modern wrestling. Since Vince bought out his dad's WWWF and dismantled the territorial system that for decades had served as the industry's framework, the WWF/WWE has been on a steady march toward monopsony. By now, the WWE is for all intents the only top-tier buyer in the labor market. The federation competed with the NWA — later called WCW — throughout the '80s and '90s, but WCW eventually went under, and Vince bought them out, as he did ECW, WCCW, the CWA, and just about every other regional promotion of historical note. Now the "competition" is TNA wrestling, which is home to Hulk Hogan and a number of other ex-WWE stars, but as far as viewership and fanbase goes, it's not on the WWE's level. And with the federation's near-domination of the industry comes a certain inevitability for the wrestlers themselves: make the McMahons happy or find work elsewhere. This has manifested itself in numerous ways — from spray-tanning to Vince's "Kiss My Ass Club" to ridiculous gimmicks like the Red Rooster — but most prominently in the steroid culture of the Hogan-Ultimate Warrior era and beyond.
In the '80s, the McMahons did a remarkable thing: They dispensed with the pretense of reality and admitted that wrestling was staged. The WWF started using the term "Sports Entertainment" to classify its peculiar endeavor. But lest you think this was a gesture of honesty or evolution, realize this had a very direct impact on the company's bottom line. As The New York Times put it recently, this move helped free the WWF from "a thicket of regulations from various state athletic commissions, requiring things like physical exams of wrestlers weeks before they would appear, and the stationing of state-approved doctors ringside during matches." Vince McMahon, in interviews over the years, has fallen back on "Sports Entertainment" as a mantra whenever confronted with thornier questions about his company's product. When a journalist asks if wrestling is real, he grins knowingly and asks rhetorically whether people wonder if the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is "real." Left unmentioned, of course, is that Schwarzenegger and his stuntmen have unions and health insurance.
Similarly, along the campaign trail, Linda has equated wrestler deaths to other entertainment industry tragedies. Per the Connecticut Post:
McMahon said WWE can no more be held accountable for deaths of performers "than a studio could have prevented Heath Ledger's death." [...]
"Who knows what causes people to have addictions and do what they do?" McMahon said.
To some degree, the McMahons have a point: They're an entertainment company, not unlike a movie studio, and it's true that nobody watches The Expendables and frets about the steroid epidemic in Hollywood. But to say that the addictions are inexplicable is willful ignorance. The drug problem in pro wrestling predated the WWF, but to deny it's a WWE issue now is hopelessly crooked, and to pretend it doesn't exist is reckless.
In wrestling's defense, there is currently a drug testing program in place — the WWE Wellness Policy — and while its detractors say it's mostly for show, there have been enough punishments to at least begin to argue otherwise. (The policy was instituted after the death at age 38 of Eddie Guerrero, who had abused drugs for much of his career.) The bulk of the sanctions so far have been related to recreational drugs and not steroids, but there is at least outward evidence that the steroid culture in the WWE is changing. Sure, there are still inhumanly muscled performers at the top of the card, but the prominence of wrestlers like Edge, Jericho, and C.M. Punk, and the ascendance of unenhanced indie standouts like Bryan Danielson and Low Ki speak to a distinct departure from the Mr. Universe aesthetic of the '90s.
Cade was fired three times by the WWE for not having his substance abuse problems under control — the first after suffering a pill-induced seizure on a company flight, and the second time after admitting he had a problem and going to rehab. Despite his confessions of drug use, though, Cade claimed he never actually failed a Wellness Policy test. And there was never any indication that his work suffered from his dependencies. As with Umaga (Eddie Fatu), who died this year, there is the feeling that the WWE finally cut ties with Cade because he had become a liability — because despite wrestling's attempts to help him, Cade's talents did not outweigh the potential for negative press should his addictions finally get the better of him. If this was indeed the calculus, there's a miserable sort of logic at work, and in its prescience it's doubly heartbreaking.
When, in the course of WWE programming, the subject of a wrestler's (real life) drug or alcohol abuse enters into the storyline, the euphemism that's most often employed is "personal demons." From Jake Roberts to Road Warrior Hawk to Scott Hall to Jeff Hardy, these kinds of struggles have long been a reality in the world of wrestling, and in the era of the internet, they've increasingly been acknowledged as such by the announcers on the television screen. The phrase "personal demons" is a way to acknowledge substance abuse issues without calling them out by name. It's a signifier for something bigger and more sinister, just as is Lance Cade's death. While these drug and PED problems are, at their core, deeply personal, they're demons that plainly have hold over the entire wrestling industry.
There was a previous era of drug testing in the WWE, right after the steroid trials of the '90s. Those tests were discontinued after the media glare had subsided. The official stance is that the WWE was in the thick of its competition with WCW, and it couldn't afford to spend money on the testing, especially since WCW wasn't testing at all. It's a persuasive argument in a purely capitalist sense. And on some level, we admire the McMahons for their hard-nosed business sense. But it's the same entrepreneurial impulse that has led the WWE to discourage unionization, to keep the work schedule as grueling as the wrestlers' bodies will allow (and often won't allow), and to keep the health benefits minimal. (Despite their willingness to pay for medical bills and rehab, it's remarkable that they do so only at their own discretion.) Linda McMahon has been touting her business acumen relentlessly on the campaign trail — she advertises that she "helped grow the company from a modest 13-person operation to a global enterprise with over 500 employees." But I would wager that number doesn't factor in the wrestlers, because as far as WWE is concerned, they're not even really employees — they're independent contractors: no 401K, no health insurance. Doctrinaire capitalism might make for good profit margins — and it might make for good Republican politics — but it doesn't make for good business practice. Despite their cartoonish personas, pro wrestlers are human. And Linda McMahon and the WWE owe a debt to the performers, frail as they may be, who built their company and to those who continue to keep it afloat. If a work environment is toxic, it's the employer's obligation to make her employees safe. The WWE too often winks and waves the banner of Sports Entertainment and laughs it off. Asked in 2007 why the WWE offers counseling services to former employees, Vince answered: "Two words. Public relations. That's it. I do not feel any sense of responsibility for anyone of whatever their age is who has passed along and has bad habits and overdoses for drugs. Sorry, I don't feel any responsibility for that."
Lance Cade was proficient in the ring, adequate on the mic, and as utterly passionate about the wrestling business as you'd imagine a Shawn Michaels protégé to be. He had the requisite odd name change (he was "Garrison Cade" at the start of his career) and the odd gimmick upheavals that characterized much of the bewildering WWE storytelling of the 2000s. He was a fairly typical wrestler for his era. His demons, sadly, were all too common as well, even if Vince McMahon feels no sense of responsibility for them. It's possible that the WWE didn't fail Cade, that he was simply the sort of person who is determined to dope himself into oblivion, regardless of the help he's offered. But wrestlers are necessarily bigger than themselves; they're symbols of something larger. And in his addictions and in his death, Lance Cade represents the dark side of wrestling's big, bright show, a side that few want to acknowledge. Particularly not Vince and Linda McMahon.
If the WWE really wants to face these problems, if it wants to try and solve them, it will have to admit that these demons exist, that they're an unfortunate but intrinsic part of modern professional wrestling — and that, so far, the WWE has been powerless to control them. That's the first step in rehabilitation, anyway.
The Masked Man works in publishing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series at #deadwrestleroftheweek.