Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a form of long-term brain damage that has become the ongoing sports PR nightmare of the 20th Century. The NFL has faced lawsuits for years due to accusations of not properly protecting players from the condition, which is said to be caused by repeated head trauma, including concussions. Many top NFL stars have developed the disease, and many others have signed up to have their brains studied after they die, in an attempt to better understand the condition.
In addition to the public outcry for study and understanding, there’s been an even louder public outcry for someone to blame when fans’ favorite athletes are left in terrible, debilitating condition. The NFL has made some moves to change how the game is played in an effort to better protect players, but other athletic entertainment industries have been slower to act.
That accusation of slow or no action was the impetus for a recent federal lawsuit against World Wrestling Entertainment, the globally known sports entertainment brand marketed as WWE. Dozens of former pro wrestlers signed onto the lawsuit which claimed the WWE “failed to protect them from repeated head trauma, including concussions, which led to long-term brain damage…”
Last week, a federal judge in Hartford, Connecticut tossed out the lawsuit, saying the claims were frivolous or that they had been filed after the statute of limitations had already expired. In a second blow to the case, the wrestlers’ attorney, Konstantine Kyros, was cited for “repeatedly failing to comply with court rules” and was subsequently ordered to pay huge sums in legal fees to the WWE. Kyros vowed to appeal, saying:
“I stand for professional wrestlers who face the prospect of losing their identity and consciousness to the effects of a latent occupational disease that robs them of their sanity, comfort of their families and memories of everything they achieved entertaining the millions of people who love them…”
That statement, coupled with who Kyros represents gives him strong sympathy among the massive, generation-spanning fan base of the WWE. Plaintiffs in the case included hugely popular wrestlers from the 1980s including Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Road Warrior Animal, Mr. Wonderful, King Kong Bundy and Mr. Fuji. Snuka and Fuji are both deceased, and were diagnosed with CTE in post-mortem examinations.
The WWE won in court, but the company is left with what could end up being a cascading loss in the court of public opinion. While some fans say the wrestlers “know the risk,” many others believe the company didn’t do enough to protect their “Superstars.” That allegations has grown in recent years with the untimely deaths of many former big names in the business, as well as some of the violent or tragic circumstances surrounding those deaths.
So, even as they might celebrate the dismissal of the case, the WWE is faced with a PR problem that is not going away with the bang of a gavel.