Does Linda McMahon Have A Dead Wrestler Problem?

September 9, 2010 5:10 a.m.

Some dead wrestlers could be creating a growing political problem for Linda McMahon in the Connecticut Senate race.

For better or worse, McMahon was CEO of a company in which actors perform all sorts of dangerous live stunts, and are known to have very hard lifestyles that, at least in some cases, include substance abuse problems. In recent weeks, there have been a number of politically-damaging news headlines citing examples in which performers have died. (Check out this one, this one and this one, for instance).

Connecticut Democrats have seized on the Republican Senate nominee’s potential weakness, accusing McMahon and her company of ignoring the welfare of WWE employees who may struggle for years with substance abuse problems and dangerous work environments and lifestyles.

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[TPM SLIDESHOW: Bringing The Smackdown: Linda McMahon’s Campaign For Senate, And Her Colorful Pro-Wrestling Past]

While Democratic nominee Richard Blumenthal has tried to publicly avoid knocking McMahon over the WWE’s dead wrestlers, the Connecticut Mirror reports that “his campaign has quietly and insistently tried to focus the state’s political press and editorial writers on the dark side of the business that produced her fortune: World Wrestling Entertainment.” On the other hand, the Connecticut Democratic Party is shouting to just about anyone who’ll listen about how bad they say this makes the Republican look, while Team McMahon is trying hard to downplay the story.

The TPM Poll Average shows Blumenthal leading McMahon 49.9-39.9.

So, where did McMahon’s potential dead wrestler problem begin?

There’s the 2005 heart failure of Eddie Guerrero Llanes, and the death last year of Eki “Eddie” Fatu — a cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who was terminated by the WWE after he refused to go into rehab.

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Then there’s Chris Benoit. As the Journal Inquirer noted, the father of the late Benoit, who killed his wife and son and then committed suicide three years ago, has blamed his son’s actions on head injuries he sustained in the ring. “As I am sure you are aware, WWE matches are scripted, and [McMahon’s daughter] Stephanie McMahon Levesque testified before a congressional committee back in late 2007 that all stunts — an example of that would be a chair shot to the head — must be pre-approved by Vince McMahon,” said Michael Benoit. “This type of scripted match, I believe, is the underlying cause of all the early deaths in this industry.”

In addition, as the Connecticut Mirror reports, McMahon has been dealing with attacks from the father of WWE wrestler Lance Cade (real name Lance McNaught), who died suddenly this past August from heart failure at age 29. After McMahon rather brusquely suggested upon Cade’s death that “I might have met him once,” the deceased wrestler’s father slammed McMahon:

“She disrespected him,” Harley McNaught said. “She disrespected my family.”

“Dead wrestler’s father blasts McMahon, WWE” isn’t exactly the kind of headline the McMahon campaign is looking for these days. The candidate later clarified a bit, saying:

I think that any father or parent that’s lost a child, clearly, has pain relative to that. I understand that. So I understand the pain that he’s feeling. I do believe there is more that can be known relative to Lance. I’m letting WWE deal with those issues.

The Dems have also attacked McMahon on another story. As the Journal Inquirer reported last week, the WWE included “death clauses” in their contracts — removing liability for the company in case of a performer’s death. In response to news of that politically problematic clause, McMahon campaign spokesman Ed Patru said that WWE “never exercised that option.”

The Connecticut Dems then fired back, hosting Yale Law School professor Bob Solomon on a conference call with reporters to say that the company did argue with just that clause in litigation involving the 1999 death of wrestler Owen Hart, who fell to his death due to a malfunctioning quick-release mechanism while being lowered to the stage in a harness. The case was ultimately settled out of court for $18 million.

WWE spokesman Robert Zimmerman told us in a statement: “WWE talent are highly skilled professionals who only perform and promote their appearances; unlike employees, they do not have any corporate responsibilities or duties, and thus are independent contractors. As independent contractors, WWE talent are able to negotiate all aspects of their contracts including length of agreement, compensation, time off, disability provisions and other benefits that would not be afforded to an employee.”

The WWE’s longtime attorney Jerry McDevitt also told us that McMahon’s husband, WWE chief Vince McMahon, had initially approached Hart’s widow with a settlement offer, and ultimately paid her the settlement after the initial lawsuit in Kansas City courts ran into legal complications. WWE later won a $9 million settlement for product liability from the company that manufactured the quick-release mechanism. McDevitt also pointed us to sections of legal rulings from 2009, when Hart’s estate attempted to reopen the case, in which the judge dismissed the motion and did not accept the contention that Hart was really an employee. We were also shown part of Vince McMahon’s deposition from the lawsuit against the equipment manufacturer, in which he said he had pursued a settlement with Hart’s widow because he felt responsibility for what had happened on his watch.

And just weeks after Cade’s death, Gertrude “Luna” Vachon, who was on the WWE payroll from 1993 to 2000, was found dead. The WWE had sent Vachon to rehab for substance abuse last year. The News Times called it “the latest public relations setback” for a candidate trying to “parlay her experience in the business world into political capital.”

Indeed, McMahon has tried to turn her experience at the helm of WWE into a political plus, with one ad declaring that she “tamed the traveling show world of professional wrestling,” and another reminding voters that it’s a “soap opera” that “isn’t real.” But with headline after headline reminding voters of the deadly consequences of a life in the ring, McMahon may have some trouble sticking to the lighter “soap opera” message.

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