Tuesday, February 27, 2007

This Baneful Vocation...

As a note: I'm likely going to be posting primarily on the documentaries in lab as that's my primary source of info.

Well, tonight's documentary was especially depressing; I almost had an "It's still real to me, dammit!" moment there. Some of the deaths were flat out tragic mistakes, but some of the deaths felt like they should be chalked up to "the business." I recall that during the high points of World Class, the Von Erich boys were wrestling two to three times a day. I wish I could say the stories of drug abuse among wrestlers were surprising, but from wrestlers hooked on painkillers to recreational drugs the stories have been practically endless. The sketchy characters in Puerto Rico that led to Bruiser Brody's death were something new to me, though. Add to this the likelihood of severe injury, unsteady wages, and it is - as we're mostly familiar with - a minefield.

I couldn't help but wondering if this is somehow related to the rapid expansion / global reach of World Class. David Von Erich's stomach illness may have been an unavoidable tragic accident, but I can't help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if he was working once or twice a week, had a company doctor, and didn't spend a good portion of his week traveling to and from shows. Trying to complete three shows in a day - or touring the country as WWE currently does - really does drive some of the talent to work through the pain or turn to drug addictions. Bringing this back to present day, I can't help but thinking of Kurt Angle's admission of taking 85 pills a day while touring with the ECW. Or of Eddie Guerrero's weakening heart that he shook off until it ended him.

Not to take away anything from personal responsibility, but is there something inherently dangerous with talent working on a certain venue scale? Does there come a point when too much work or pressure on the talent leads to their mental and physical breakdown? When desire to spread out your talent leads to them winding up in shady stadiums with violent dealers? When an institutional instinct to not appear weak (a la Chris Nowinski's book) leads to more broken bodies than it does better spots and buy rates? When enough shows a week leads to an almost certain injuries and exhaustion? Or is it really just up to the individuals a brand acquires? There are a number of wrestlers that were/are able to successfully cope with the stresses, and a number of small-brand wrestlers who were just bound for trouble (New Jack, anyone?).

After writing this out, I'm leaning a bit more towards the latter. It also leads me to a somewhat rudimentary economic analysis of how the business is run, which I'll try to get to later in the week.


Sam Ford said...

Interesting questions, Brian, and one that the industry always struggles with, from the wrestlers to the companies to the journalists surrounding it. WWE has slowed down their road dates and has developed a wellness policy so that I would say they will never have something happen to them like what happened to World Class. However, drug dependency too often becomes a reality in the business, and no one can deny that, either. There are only so many years in the spotlight, and often people will do things that aren't that wise in order to keep their spot.

WWE has developed reduced schedules for guys like The Undertaker from time-to-time, they certainly don't ask for major high-flying risks from Ric Flair or Jim Duggan or whoever they have in a "legend" wrestling capacity, etc., but there are still plenty of injuries in such a physical performance art.

The WWE choosing to get rid of Angle out of concern for his health deserves a lot of credit, but the company has to struggle between the need to encourage the mental and physical wellness of its wrestlers and the economic incentive to put on the strongest show possible. I don't know what the right balance is, but it's going to be something the industry will be discussing for years to come, with the WCCW tragedy perhaps the extreme version of success and fame gone wrong.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

All viable theories. There are any number of variables that could go into that phenomenon, and the ridiculously demanding work schedules are certainly one of them. The availability of drugs that mask physical and mental health problems long enough to exacerbate them to often fatal levels is also a factor--I noticed a very high percentage of the WCCW dead were listed as "heart failure," which I believe is associated with both steroids and cocaine. But I don't have a lot of firsthand experience with either, so maybe not.

I wonder a lot about culture. It's not a very clean variable, but it certainly acts on all the others. I wonder if it would be plausible to argue that there was something specific about Texas culture, ideas about masculinity, conspicuous consumption, drug/alcohol use, etc. that made the WCCW seemingly a more dangerous place to work. Hell, maybe being Fritz von Erich's son was itself a major risk factor.

Rob said...

As I was reading your questions about "the talent" and what happens to them as everyone tries to spread them ever thinner, I couldn't help but think that you could ask many of the same questions regarding the big talent in other major media industries as well.

In the movie industry, you have the big stars regularly suffering health and drug problems to maintain their image and appearences, though less so in very recent years.

In the music industry, stories of depression, substance abuse, and suicide are all too common.

Even in less public industries like the videogame industry, you have stories of people suffering from being worked to death (e.g., the "ea_spouse" story from a couple years back).

It seems to me, that it is a natural tendency of the media industries to push their talent as hard as they can. Probably because these are traditionally such risky industries where you only rarely find a really succesful product, and so when you do, people want to squeeze absolutely every drop they can out of it.

Now, is that necessarily the best thing for the people? Certainly not. Is it the best thing for the industry? I don't think so. It seems to be the natural tendency, but just as with other industries, as the businesses become more sophisticated, developed, and financially stable, putting assurances in place to keep the talent on a reasonable schedule seems to be the more modern trend, and ultimately I think this will benefit the respective industries.

Anonymous said...

The two objectives of both success and popularity while maintaining a healthy lifestyle seem to be forever at odds in the lives of wrestlers. Some seem born on the road, who migrate from city to city and performing 3-4 shows a week without any visible signs of fatigue. Others suffer much more easily from the gruelling road schedule, and then the tendency to shrug off injuries or nagging problems compounds this stress even more. These pressures can either help talent flourish and succeed, or crumble to pieces as victims of drug abuse or worse. The stars of World Class wrestling crumbled for one reason or another, while other, later talent seemed to overcome those obstacles more and more. Either care and stress-management has inproved from the handlers and higher-ups in the companies, or at least wrestlers have learned from the past. Either way, the stress of the business and life on the road if still a looming monster that all talent need to face at some point. Some beat it, some fall, like the Von Erichs.