Twenty-five years ago this week, at the now-shuttered federal courthouse in Uniondale for the Eastern District of New York, WWE chief Vincent Kennedy McMahon was acquitted on charges of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids. It was a pivotal moment in wrestling history, and the effective conclusion of a case that is both more complicated and much simpler than it’s commonly understood to be. The repercussions of that case and that verdict would extend for years into the future, both in terms of the wrestling product and the public perception of it. McMahon also came to believe that the government and the media were out to get him, although he’d already been trending in that direction.
What’s now World Wrestling Entertainment was then Titan Sports doing business as the World Wrestling Federation. “Titan” was fitting because, more than just about any other wrestling promotion, the WWF was always a “big man’s territory,” and that preference for beef impacted numerous facets of the company. The promotion’s in-ring style was largely glacial and ponderous, and the rings had less give because of the need to support the additional weight. This was made possible by the fact that, starting in the early 1980s, WWF wrestlers had easier access to a superior quality of anabolic steroids than what was then being sold on the black market at gyms. Dr. George T. Zahorian III, a urologist assigned to WWF events by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, started selling steroids to wrestlers in the early ‘80s after, as he would later testify, an illiterate wrestler came to him about the veterinary steroids he was taking unknowingly.
WWF taped six episodes of television on back-to-back nights every three weeks through spring of 1984 and ran in the Keystone State more than just about anywhere else after that, which gave Zahorian plenty of opportunities to sell. He was also willing to ship his wares via Federal Express when necessary.
Zahorian’s side business was as out in the open as anything in the historically closed-off confines of a pro wrestling locker room could be. Fan newsletters of the era include cryptic references to wrestlers going to “Allentown” to get in better shape; wrestlers themselves would line up with cash in hand to be examined by Zahorian before leaving with shopping bags. Most importantly, though, Vince McMahon himself eventually became a Zahorian customer.
In a sense, that lack of secrecy is sort of understandable. For the first half of the ‘80s, steroid use was significantly less controversial than it would become after Ben Johnson’s positive test at the 1988 Summer Olympics. In some promotions, wrestlers went so far as to accuse rivals of abusing steroids on television. Other wrestlers, like Hercules Hernandez, bragged openly about taking them. “Look at these arms,” Hercules Hernandez is quoted as saying during a promo in the March 15, 2004 Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “Five dianabols a day!” But in the WWF, then as now the top promotion in the world, a doctor dealing steroids with implicit approval from the promoter would be a much worse look than in any other.
In October 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 was passed. Section 2403 explicitly barred distribution of “any anabolic steroid for any use in humans other than the treatment of disease” by amending Section 303 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The WWF was then in the midst of a years-long campaign to deregulate pro wrestling in commission states, which paved the way for Pennsylvania to pass the Professional Wrestling Act on July 1, 1989. While that law kept the pseudo-sport under commission regulation, the control was loosened significantly. The most notable change was that promoters, instead of the athletic commission, would have to hire ringside doctors. The WWF staffer in charge of regulatory matters, Anita Scales, didn’t want to use Zahorian, but she was overruled by the McMahons and others on the wrestling operations side. As it turned out, Zahorian was removed from his first WWF-orchestrated booking and never ended up working for the promotion because the company was tipped off that he was under investigation in December 1989.
The feds had already started recording Zahorian through a strength coach and customer named Bill Dunn, who turned to save himself. The FBI searched the doctor’s office in late March 1990 and eventually indicted him on February 5, 1991; a trial date was set for that summer. The case drew little local coverage and no national scrutiny until Zahorian’s lawyer decided to leak the names of the John Doe wrestlers—most notably Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper—that his client had been accused of telling steroids. It’s hard to know why Zahorian and his attorney did this, but it didn’t help. The doctor had no defense beyond the argument that he could prescribe whatever he felt was appropriate, and he was found guilty. To the media and the general public, though, the genie was out of the bottle, with the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick emerging as a particularly vocal critic. The WWF announced steroid testing, with McMahon personally admitting to his own steroid use, just a few weeks later. A spokesman insisted that it had nothing to do with the publicity of the Zahorian trial.
A grand jury was convened to scrutinize the promotion’s conduct in late 1992, but an FBI memo reveals that several months later, there did not appear to be any clear direction to the larger investigation. While the version of the memorandum produced to this reporter in a Freedom of Information Act request was moderately redacted, the writer Shaun Assael got a complete one in a 1999 request made while reporting his book Sex, Lies, and Headlocks. The memo lays out the investigator’s preliminary plans and focus, which was primarily on the steroids.
“However,” it continues, “through grand jury testimony, he is attempting to determine the extent of a fraud being perpetrated on the general viewing public through misrepresentations made by professional wrestling figures. A determination should be made within the next few months as to the direction the case will take.” (Everything after “however” was redacted from the version of the memo I received.)
A second memo from the same agent, dated September 30, 1993, specified the “fraud” being investigated as one allegedly perpetrated “on legitimate major suppliers of toys and vitamins,” who “were allegedly unaware that the majority of talent at the WWF were steroid abusers.” If that sounds like a stretch to you, rest assured that the grand jury agreed—there was no indictment for defrauding corporate partners or the viewing public. On November 18, 1993, both McMahon and Titan Sports were indicted on charges of distributing steroids to a WWF wrestler—later revealed to be Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea—and conspiring with Zahorian to defraud the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The WWF really had introduced steroid testing by then, and both the physiques in the ring and the broader idea of who could be a WWF Superstar were changing, but not fully changed. When WWE filed The Ultimate Warrior’s test results from his 1992 WWF stint as an exhibit in a 2008 lawsuit that Warrior brought against the promotion, it revealed that Warrior still tested positive for steroids every time he gave a specimen. In a 1999 deposition, Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, who ran the program, testified that he was satisfied with the levels of each steroid decreasing over time. While that method of measuring tapering or cessation of steroid use has long been debated, there isn’t much to debate about Warrior’s August 16, 1992 positive for methyltestosterone. That time, Warrior had, per Di Pasquale, “said he had gotten some, I believe, Yohimbe bark which he felt might have been contaminated with methyltestosterone.” The doctor let him off with a warning.
This was outside the scope of the McMahon trial, where the prosecution had an uphill battle. On one hand, Zahorian testified to McMahon telling him early 1988 to “continue what you are doing” after the doctor assured him that he was selling legitimate drugs. On the other, Zahorian never actually worked for the company. The attempts to hire him, before Linda McMahon learned he was under investigation, sure looked sketchy, but that’s not a legal standard. The prosecution’s distribution charge, which had McMahon dividing up a package of steroids sent to him by Zahorian and having his driver courier some to Hogan, fell apart under scrutiny. Federal Express records showed that a package—addressed to McMahon’s assistant Emily Feinberg—was indeed delivered to the WWF TV studio in Stamford, Connecticut on the day prosecutors alleged, but the show at the Nassau Coliseum at which feds alleged Hogan received his steroids never happened—the closest show at that venue was held four days before Zahorian’s shipment arrived in Stamford. (The WWF ran another show in the New York market—at Madison Square Garden—four days after the package showed up, but whatever may or may not have happened there was immaterial, since MSG is not in the district where McMahon was indicted and tried.)
Between the space-time continuum and jurisdictional issues, McMahon’s acquittal on this charge looked more and more like a forgone conclusion as the trial went on. The defense cross-examined witnesses extensively, but was confident enough not to put on any witnesses at all. McMahon and Titan Sports were acquitted on all charges.
The WWF that existed after the trial was a very different company than it had been before the steroid scandal started. Live event attendance, at least domestically, plummeted, thanks both to the scandals and an industry-wide downturn in the U.S. wrestling business. The in-ring product looked notably different, too. The biggest stars of the era included Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Shawn Michaels, all previously deemed too small to headline despite being big guys by modern standards. Other notables included Bob Backlund and Jerry Lawler, both in their mid-40s, with Lawler especially having been small even by non-WWF headliner standards in the regional era. Other stars of the era, such as Razor Ramon, The Undertaker, and Diesel, were naturally huge men in great shape, but had nothing like the freakish physiques of the previous era.
The drug testing, meanwhile, would become a point of pride, with a January 1996 “Billionaire Ted’s Rasslin War Room” skit poking fun at Ted Turner and his World Championship Wrestling promotion for not subjecting its talent to “a legitimate drug test for steroids.” Later that year, though, the WWF dropped testing.
“One of the reasons was, we were competing with Ted Turner and we were fighting for our survival,” Vince McMahon told Congressional investigators in 2007. “It was a private company at the time. We had lost $5 million to $6 million, and testing was very expensive.” McMahon later pegged the cost as “in the six figures.” The day before, Linda McMahon told the investigators that “there was a competitor not doing it, it was just not a level playing field as we were very competitive in the marketplace,” Neither McMahon, however, would go as far as to say that the non-tested physiques in WCW gave that promotion an advantage. At any rate, the promotion’s look changed again, closer to the beefy old days. That trend continued until the fallout from the deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit in 2005 and 2007, respectively, when testing was reintroduced and then strengthened.
The prosecution clearly left an impression on McMahon, just maybe not the type that prosecutors sought. A little less than a year and a half after the trial, in November and December 1995, respectively, both the New York Post and the Village Voice ran stories about Marty Bergman, the husband of McMahon attorney Laura Brevetti. According to the reporting of Mushnick and Jack Newfield in the Post and William Bastone in the Voice, Bergman misrepresented himself as a TV news producer during the trial while making extravagant offers to Feinberg, a key prosecution witness. She was of particular use to the prosecution because of her familiarity with McMahon’s steroid orders from Zahorian, to the point of having saved her notebooks where she logged McMahon’s steroid and syringe (or “rigg”) orders from Zahorian. (Feinberg was initially the secretary for WWF executive Dick Glover, but was promoted to Vince McMahon’s executive assistant weeks after the release of an issue of Playboy in which she was the centerfold under her maiden name.)
Feinberg’s involvement in the case was more volatile than that of most witnesses because, according to the defense in a sidebar recorded in the trial transcript, she had an affair with McMahon while working as his assistant. At trial, most people in the courtroom didn’t know about any of this—about the affair, about Bergman trying to extract information from Feinberg, or about Feinberg’s Playboy appearance. As a result, Brevetti’s cross-examination of the former model came off odd at times, and Linda McMahon’s tears in the gallery were hard to explain. Brevetti’s attempt to push the idea that Feinberg was pursuing a book deal went nowhere, as did trying to frame her as an actress who could give convincing false testimony.
When Bergman’s machinations came to light, Vince McMahon produced a rebuttal that aired only on the New York market version of the December 2 episode of his syndicated WWF Superstars TV show; this was after the Post article came out but before the Voice counterpart dropped. (At the time, Superstars aired on WNYW-TV, which, like the Post, was owned by News Corp.)
“I’ve always made a point to refrain from personal commentary during WWF programming, but please permit me this one exception,” McMahon began. He went on to frame himself as the victim of a “vicious attack” and “journalistic stalking” by “the tabloid media, led by one Phil Mushnick of the New York Post” before going off on “the utter lack of ethics of some of the ‘good guys’ involved in my case, all of whom had demonstrable ties to Mr. Phil Mushnick.” Without elaboration, McMahon said that, among other things, “the good guys” involved lied to the judge, media, and jury. He did not get into the specifics of the Bergman allegations past saying that “I deeply resent any innuendo or accusation that my acquittal [...] was in any way tainted by any illegality by me, or by my legal representation” and “that postulation of witness tampering is about as farfetched as the charges originally brought against me in the first place.” The cherry on top is that McMahon labelled lead prosecutor Sean O’Shea and federal investigators as “Phil Mushnick’s cronies at the Justice Department,” suggesting that the Post columnist somehow engineered his prosecution.
So, did Vince McMahon really learn anything from the prosecution that briefly seemed to threaten his promotion? Probably not. Was he humbled by it? You already know the answer to that one.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter—which includes “The Boys Need Their Candies,” an ongoing series on the steroid scandal/trials—and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.