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Madden: Personal choices not always smart

Saturday, June 28, 2003

We reap what we sow. That wasn't made very clear in HBO's latest episode of "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," but it was made clear by the death of Pitt wide receiver Billy Gaines.

"Real Sports" examined the phenomenon of professional wrestlers dying at a rate supposedly 400 times that of mainstream professional athletes.

Since the beginning of 1997, 59 pro wrestlers have passed away, an admittedly astounding figure. The purpose of the "Real Sports" piece seemed to be to place blame for those deaths at the feet of World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon, an allegation McMahon didn't handle real well. At one point, McMahon tried to slap the notes out of the hands of his interviewer, Armen Keteyian.

The wrestling lifestyle is a demanding one. Pain pills, uppers, steroids, Human Growth Hormone ... many wrestlers indulge in a vicious cycle that can be fatal.

But many don't indulge. Those who do are adults making a personal choice.

McMahon doesn't stand by the backstage door every night handing out sleepers, leapers and illegal muscle-building supplements. He may ask the wrestlers to work a demanding schedule, and WWE has always had an underlying philosophy that bigger is better.

But no one has been forced to work in the pro wrestling industry. Anyone who can't handle the demands -- or who goes too far in trying to do so -- would be well served by getting out.

No one blames baseball for Darryl Strawberry's drug problems. And, hitting a little closer to home, no one blames football for Steve Courson's medical problems.

Courson, a former Steeler, admittedly used steroids to enhance his body, his career and his bank account. The NFL also has an underlying philosophy that bigger is better, especially when it comes to the offensive line. Since retiring, Courson has had myriad health problems.

That is nobody's fault but Courson's. He took the risk, got the career, got the money, and now he's paying the price. He made his own choice.

If Courson needs a heart transplant, that's not Dan Rooney's fault.

And dead wrestlers aren't McMahon's fault.

The figures regarding wrestling deaths were distorted by "Real Sports." The "legitimate" media tends to play a little fast and loose with its own rules when it comes to covering a phony pseudo-sport.

Of the 59 wrestlers who died since 1997, only three were on WWE's active roster when they did. Three were working for now-defunct World Championship Wrestling and one was working a full-time independent schedule (i.e., appearing on small shows not affiliated with a major company).

The rest were part timers or semiretired former stars without much of a legitimate connection to the business when they died. It's worth noting, however, that at least five of the former stars died of health problems that undoubtedly took root while they were working for WWE or WCW.

But seven full-time wrestlers have died since the beginning of 1997. That figure is still too high, especially when you've lost a few friends. But it's a bit lower than 59.

I worked in wrestling for nine years and I admit it can be very tough to defend. It is, to a large degree, a collection of misfit toys, legitimately talented athletes who didn't make it in "real" sports, often because they weren't mentally or physically disciplined enough. Wrestling is based on a lie. As a result, most people involved with wrestling are very good liars. The truth isn't based on actual events, it's based on who's doing the talking.

In short, wrestling is populated by a lot of people prone to making the wrong choices, then justifying them as the right choices over and over again. They reap what they sow.

Which brings us to Gaines, the Pitt football player who died far too young.

Feel sorry for the friends and family of Gaines, sure. But remember, Gaines was not a victim, except of his own stupidity. He was not born with a birth defect. He was not a small child killed by a drunken driver. Rather, Gaines was the drunken driver. All he lacked was a car, and thank God for that. Gaines got inebriated, did something dumb and paid the ultimate price. We reap what we sow.

Gaines' friend, Pitt kicker David Abdul, is the one who will pay an ongoing price. Abdul was there with Gaines in the crawl space above St. Anne Church. Gaines died; Abdul didn't. Abdul will spend the rest of his life wondering why. What's worse, sudden death or lingering guilt?

Society in general seems to be in a moral tailspin, and a lot of it has to do with not accepting personal responsibility. Any tragedy, be it minor or major, is always someone else's fault.

It's no different in sports. After winning, everyone basks in whatever individual glory they can grab onto. After losing, everyone tries to sidestep blame.

But, when something goes bad, it's almost always the fault of the guy in the mirror.

Or the guy in the coffin.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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