Dear sports medicine professionals, athletes, and companies who work in sports entertainment,
We need to have a talk. Wrestlers, sports entertainers, specialized athletes; whatever you call the folks who hit the squared circle like a time bomb every few days, they all will need medical help. Every single last one of them will need a bruise looked at, or a dislocation, or a career-ending neck injury.
Whether it’s Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose) taking a ring full of tacks home in his flesh, Sexy Starr shooting on both Rosemary and Diosa Quetzal after they’d submitted, Roman taking 10 staples and 12 stitches via Suplex City/F5-ville, or a routine blood test after a Joey Ryan match (seriously, urine?!), medical personnel are a vital part of fighting.
Except when they screw up. Or when their employer has more to gain from working slightly injured talent. Or when they know darned well their athletes use ammonia smelling salts to pass concussion tests. Or, in CM Punk’s case, when Dr. Amaan, head ringside doc with the WWE, ignored his staph infection and got called out for it. Amaan sued Punk for libel and lost, setting a landmark for sports entertainers. Talking truth about the medical procedures in wrestling is no longer going to be as verboten. Or one would hope.
See, what we’re really here to talk about is when medicine fails, or rather, when medical staff fail. Warning! Staff are humans and humans make mistakes. Some humans make them over and over. In fact, Dr. Juan Uribe, orthopaedic surgeon to Nikki Bella, Daniel Bryan, and Paige, has told all of these people at one time or another not to wrestle again, and all three have been cleared by WWE medical staff after these recommendations.
Sports medicine doctors are specialized, but not nearly as much as orthopaedic surgeons, and yet their tests for performance after a neck injury are less stringent. Because of this inconsistency, in my eyes, Paige has been permanently retired due to a botched kick from Sasha Banks, a move that wouldn’t have ended the career of a healthy wrestler. This is troubling for many reasons, but one really stands out and gets my goat on a personal level.
Here, though, I need to put my cards on the table. I, like many athletes in their later years, have concussion syndrome symptoms in my daily life and degenerative disk disorder in most of my cervical spine due to injuries sustained when I was a partnered dancer. My thoughts on this matter are filtered through the lens of a person who had untreated maladies end one aspect of her career. Now onto the real talk.
The ever-present concussion discussion is complicated. Sure, I wanted to cover a lot of problems with this article, but the elephant in the room is always going to be neck injuries and concussions. I’ve lost count of the wrestlers who have broken their necks and continued to perform.
It’s hard to know the number of times a performer has passed or failed a concussion test because those generally are given in-house by organization doctors and assistants. We also know from former stars and current lifters that smelling salts (ammonia inhalants used in doctors’ offices and hospitals to ward off sudden syncope) can be and are being used to mask concussion symptoms, a trick used in the NFL before lifters and other athletes glommed on.
We know from comments and likes on Twitter and Instagram that our lads who have the more rigorous training schedules (#SethRollins is a great example) use smelling salts to lengthen workouts. So some of the concussion discussion has to be about that: athletes love their sports so much, and rely on their performance to put food on their tables and roofs over their family’s heads, so they use shortcuts to pass the neuro physicals. And a doctor can only make decisions and recommendations based on what he or she can measure…if you don’t give your health team the full truth, they can’t treat you with the proper medical procedures.
We’ve talked a lot about doctors already in this article, but I need to bring them into the discussion again. A sports medicine team, ideally, should have multiple full-RN-style nurses, one or more general practitioners, one or more orthopaedists, and an on-call neurologist. Any/all of them would have surgical experience in the best case scenario.
WWE, Ring of Honor, and NJPW certainly have extensive medical teams, but no team is perfect, and any backstage area (for any show ever, really) is chaos incarnate. Remember what I said about giving a health team the truth? Sometimes the truth isn’t enough, especially if the performer is part of a high volume check-up influx (royal rumbles have so many people to check after their show!).
If a team is inundated, they can’t work to their fullest potential, and the more stress and volume added to the team’s workload, the less energy they have to give each performer. This is a general rule for health care workers: humans have limits, and carers are human. Doctors get it wrong sometimes. Also, they have expectations placed on them by their employers. Ahh, employers. That’s the clincher for this talk.
If we look at the NFL and their players’ use ammonia inhalants, we see that, yes, athletes will often go above and beyond (or in this case, below and beneath) to keep their careers going for any of a number of reasons. One of those is very important: making a living. Every day an athlete comes to work and performs to capability, they earn a paycheck. If they fail a concussion test in the NFL they are banned from competing for the rest of the day, and they lose that paycheck. Also, there’s the problem of the NFL withholding and stalling payments to players permanently benched with head injuries: organizations win when they have full rosters and no angry exes.
The WWE benches their performers for 7 days for each failed concussion test and that might be solely due to the Benoit issue).
That’s a heck of a lot of a paycheck gone, and a week out of the public eye can be disastrous for any performer. They want to perform, the company wants them to perform, and so both health teams and athletes feel pressure to have bills of good health, whether they’re strictly true or not. Organizations will, as has been seen in the NFL (and battled in court), throw an injured athlete under the bus for money, all while trying to protect themselves from litigation.
Add to the mix that each organization has different standards and practices, and it breeds loose and dangerous rules to keep rosters full (Io Shirai, one of the greatest female wrestlers in the world, was scouted by the #WWE, but they wouldn’t sign her due to a neck injury issue, and she’s continued to compete, medically cleared by Japanese production Stardom, until the WWE finally cleared her somehow this year).
The fault in the concussion discussion lies in all three aspects of wrestling health care. Performers want to eat and perform, doctors want to stay employed and maintain their patients’ health, and organizations want to make money in the least illegal way possible. It’s good for business and toxic for health care.
I would be an idiot to say I have the perfect plan to fix this. But sometimes, a talk needs to be had even if there aren’t easy solutions. The discussion should be open for that very reason: someone else may have knowledge I don’t and can suggest ideas for reform, but if the topic isn’t freely discussed, that wisdom is left out of the discussion.
So in the interest of the humans working in performance and healthcare, business needs to take a backseat sometimes. I’m not sure the culture of hidden injuries can change any other way.
Ever yours, though you’re all numpties,
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