Uninformed Outrage: When Steroids Were Blamed in Place of CTE

Curator's Note

Professional wrestling is an industry that strives for mainstream acceptance. The ratings remain strong, but the business (and its fans) can still be dismissed easily by the general public with a casual “Don't you know it's all fake?” As a fan, to log on to every mainstream media website and see your favorite WWE superstar splashed front and center across the homepage would seem to be a validation, or finally a sign of sought after acceptance. On June 25th, 2007, that is exactly what I found. Chris Benoit, former WWE champion, hung himself at his home in Fayetteville, Georgia. Police found Benoit's wife Nancy and seven year old son Daniel strangled at the scene.. and my favorite wrestler was the main suspect in a double murder-suicide.

Over the next few weeks I watched the hours media outlets devoted to the details of the case, fascinated by the assumptions that commentators made on Benoit's motives. The connection seemed too tempting to avoid.. It must have been roid rage. Professional wrestling had been linked with steroids for decades, and the litany of performers dying young was enough circumstantial evidence needed to explain the crime. As a fan, I cringed as the business of professional wrestling was purported to be at fault for creating a culture of accepted steroid use and emphasizing aggressive behavior.

Thanks greatly to the work of Christopher Nowinski (former WWE Superstar and founder of the Sports Legacy Institute), it was found that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy was the cause of Benoit's violent behavior. Repeated concussions compounded with a career of diving headbutts from the top rope left Benoit with the brain capacity of an 85 year old dementia patient.  The media had followed the clues correctly and found the culture surrounding professional wrestling to blame.. but focused on steroids instead of CTE. 

The cases were there prior to 2007 to be examined; Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Mike Webster.. the list goes on. Benoit was just one more in a line of athletes whose success came at the price of their health. However, Benoit's case came with a ready made cause for the mainstream media. Why was it so easy to indict Benoit's profession for his behavior.. but it took 3 more years and even more deaths for the media to finally start looking at football and CTE to explain extreme behavior?


The case of Chris Benoit certainly stands as a benchmark in many ways, as the dangers of CTE were exposed in grisly detail.  Many wrestling fans have professed to not being able to watch any longer after Benoit's murder/suicide, and many more refuse to acknowledge Benoit himself after what occurred. 

I also remember the search for legitimate answers in the days following the Benoit tragedy, and steroids were an early explanation given the legacy of the wrestling industry and the enormous amount of steroids found in Benoit's home.  Let's also not forget such explanations as Benoit's son having "Fragile X Syndrome" and Benoit being revealed as a backstage bully in the aftermath of the murder/suicide.  While some of these explanations were exposed as being inaccurate (Fragile X) there appears to be the confounding answer of never determining a single cause for this tragedy. 

In addition to bringing attention to CTE, the Benoit case is significant because it calls into question the entire basis of safety in these activities.  Wrestling fans who enjoyed Benoit's work suddenly had to deal with the fact that those  matches he endured were doing legitimate damage to him, and we cheered him on in the process.  Matthew Randazzo's controversial Ring of Hell went so far as to call Benoit a "mark," as he was doing significant damage to his health by taking so much real punishment in the context of a "fake" sport.  For Randazzo, what made Benoit the mark was that he didn't have to endure this punishment, as the fans were aware that the match was not "real" and presumably would not want him to injure himself.  Instead, Benoit was praised for a work ethic that, arguably in the end, led to him killing himself and his family.  The culpability for Randazzo was Benoit's for buying so much into professional wrestling that the match's importance exceeded the importance of his own health, making him the easy "mark" to be conned.

This correlates very much to the culture of toughness and hypermasculinity mentioned elsewhere this week.  Perhaps a more accurate assessment is that athletes who endure these risks are "marks."

Good post and point. At the same time, we should be equally careful about pinning Benoit's behavior on CTE. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of athletes who suffer repeated blows to the head (and likely have CTE) do not kill themselves or others. As SI recently reported (http://su.pr/3WJgyL), Owen Thomas, the Penn football player who committed suicide was found to have CTE, but his brother says that he exhibited troubling behavior from the time he was 14, and BU's Dr. Cantu says outright that CTE did not impact Thomas's behavior.

Just as we should not pin complex behavior solely on steroids or the culture of the sport, we should not fall back only on CTE when so very little of the CTE story is truly understood.

"Roid rage" is apparently real (a 2008 survey--the only thorough one conducted--of 7,000 American boys found significantly higher levels of violent behavior among boys who used steroids) but many athletes use steroids and do not become violent or commit suicide, just as many athletes have CTE and do not do those things. We should avoid the temptation to simplify these tragic stories, in one direction or the other.

Good post. But to reiterate David's point, a case like Benoit is too extreme to place responsibility entirely on the shoulders of one particular factor. Are we comfortable with saying CTE caused the Benoit tragedy and nothing else? Should we ignore the drug use, and any personal, or psychological problems that may have contributed?

This particular case serves to illuminate not only what we know about CTE, which is to say very little in the grand scheme of things, but about steroids, which has something in common with CTE: we just don't know enough right now. With steroids, there are documented cases of certain drugs (Torinabol, in this case) directly leading to infertility, increased risk of premature heart disease, and liver failure...but the sample size was limited to athletes of Manfred Ewald's Olympics experiments in the German Democratic Republic. I'd be curious to know more about the survey Mr. Epstein speaks of on roid rage, as that's the first time I've heard of it.    

The current task of neuroscience is to bridge that gap between physiology, on one hand, and psychology, on the other. But that gap is still wide. A unified theory of the mind, especially as it concerns consciousness, still eludes us. So it's important to emphasize, and avoid this 'fallacy of reductionism': in thinking that threatened localized areas of the brain can explain the complexity of human behavior.   

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