A year ago today, according to the Fayette County, Georgia Sheriff’s Department, Chris Benoit hanged himself with the rope of his weight machine. In the two preceding days he had murdered his wife Nancy and their young son Daniel. The crime shocked wrestling fans and non-fans with its suddenness and brutality, and dominated the news for much of the following week. World Wrestling Entertainment, Benoit’s employer, who had probably booked him to win the ECW World Heavyweight Championship at that Sunday’s Vengeance pay-per-view event, devoted that Monday’s edition of RAW to Benoit, airing tearful tributes from his fellow workers, and highlights of his best remembered matches. The next day, when Benoit was revealed to be a murderer, WWE owner Vince McMahon apologized for the tribute, and the company began removing every reference to Benoit from its website, its weekly television shows, and the programming on its WWE 24/7 cable channel.
I remember the speculation that flew back and forth in the days following the Benoit murder/suicide. Why did Chris Benoit do it? Were there warning signs that had been ignored? Was he disgruntled in his career — disappointed, maybe, that he, a former WrestleMania headliner and WWE World Heavyweight Champion, was about to be crowned the champion of WWE’s third-tier ECW brand? Was it frustration stemming from his son’s fragile X syndrome? Or was it a result of the steroids Benoit undoubtedly had taken throughout his wrestling career? Had Chris Benoit murdered his family and killed himself due to ‘roid rage?
That was the popular theory at the time, floated by wrestling fans and the media. The idea that steroids contributed to the tragedy was so prevalent that WWE felt compelled to issue a press release within a few days of the crime, claiming that the murders appeared to be premeditated, not the explosive acts of violence one would expect to ensue from ‘roid rage. Ever since the heyday of Hulk Hogan in the mid-‘80s, the WWF/WWE has been accused of enabling the drug use of its performers. The list of wrestlers who have died in the last ten years from overdoses or complications of drug abuse is depressingly long, and it was only a few years ago that the WWE instituted anything close to a drug program. Their highly touted wellness policy has resulted in suspensions of a few high profile workers, but is still criticized as being more about appearing to address the company’s drug problem than actually addressing it.
The WWE drug program is beside the point, as it turns out. Chris Benoit didn’t kill his wife, son and himself as a result of steroid abuse. Three months after his death, Benoit’s brain was examined on the suggestion of former WWE star Chris Nowinski. Nowinski retired from wrestling after he suffered a concussion during a match, and has spent the last several years investigating the effects of head injuries on wrestlers and other athletes. The examination of Benoit found he had suffered severe brain damage from his years of absorbing shots from steel chairs and being dropped on his head during his wrestling career. The injuries were so extreme that Julian Bailes, the West Virginia University neurosurgeon who conducted the examination, concluded Benoit had the equivalent of the brain of an 85 year-old Alzheimer’s patient, and probably suffered from dementia.
Here we are a year later, and there is still no mention of Chris Benoit on WWE television. In the wake of the crime, the decision to act as though Benoit never existed made a kind of sense, at least from a business perspective. That way, they could avoid the appearance of cashing in on a brutal and tragic murder/suicide. Now, I’m not so sure. Not only are we a year removed from the crime, we also have a great deal of evidence to suggest that Benoit may not have been fully cognizant of his actions. If he was suffering from dementia, if he was not in his right mind that weekend a year ago, can we continue to treat his legacy as that of a cold-blooded murderer?
WWE can and, it seems, will continue to. That also makes a kind of sense — it was during his seven years with WWE that Benoit attained his greatest fame, and suffered many of the injuries to his brain. Just as they were a year ago when they erased Benoit from history and issued a press release disputing ‘roid rage as a factor in the crime, WWE is covering its ass by continuing the Benoit blackout. It wasn’t steroids that drove Benoit to murder his wife and son; it was pro wrestling itself, a twisted industry that exploits the love its fans feel for its athletes, while caring itself for the athletes as little as possible. It’s better for the company’s bottom line, and the fans’ piece of mind, if we really do forget about Chris Benoit.