OJ Simpson is widely accepted as a murderer. While he was not found guilty in a court of law for killing his estranged wife and a waiter, he was found liable by a civil court. In fact, Simpson now sits in a Nevada jail for an unrelated crime, in which he attempted to steal sports memorabilia at gun point.
Simpson, to a whole generation of people, is simply a punchline to a variety of jokes about a guy killing a couple people. To many people my age, they remember Simpson as the actor and sports commentator who killed a couple people. To people a generation earlier, Simpson is the former Buffalo Bill and USC Heisman Trophy winner who killed a couple people.
Regardless, you would be hard pressed to find someone in the United States and Canada who does not know who OJ Simpson is.
Fifteen years after he killed two people (allegedly), Simpson has a notoriety and fame that is equal to what he had before the double murder in California that he has been found responsible for in a civil court. No one ever pretended Simpson wasn't a great football player. They didn't stop showing "Roots" or "the Towering Inferno" or any "Naked Gun" movies because the Juice is a notorious murderer, even if he was not convicted. ESPN still mentions him on SportsCenter when he is relevant to something (such as rushing records, or perhaps the Heisman Trophy) and he is still featured on ESPN Classics in old game footage, and even as a commentator on things like "Superteams:Tug of War".
So why is it that one of the best wrestlers to ever grace the squared circle is a taboo subject? Why is it that Chris Benoit cannot be celebrated as a great professional grappler that just so happened to murder a couple people, but OJ Simpson can be recognized as an all-time great in his sport?
I am not here to argue that the Benoit Family murder-suicide was not Benoit's fault, or anything like that. All I am saying is that Chris Benoit was perhaps the best wrestler of his generation, and his body of work should be examined and debated and talked about, rather than swept under the rug as if he never existed.
While there is not debate that Benoit was a murderer, there is also no debate as to what kind of wrestler Benoit was. Benoit was a main event wrestler in every major US wrestling promotion, in Mexico, in Europe, and in Japan. Benoit was a "wrestler's wrestler" - a true mat technician who not only wowed fans with his matches, but also his peers.
The fact of the matter is this - Benoit, upon an autopsy, was found to have severe brain damage. The damage was done from years upon years of punishment to his head while wrestling. The psychological effects of abusing bodybuilding drugs since adolescence so that he could have a body similar to that of his idol, the Dynamite Kid, also contributed to the Benoit familicide.
Why did Benoit continue to punish his body for years with taking risks in the ring and by injecting harmful drugs into his body? He did it to be the best wrestler in the world. He did it to make his idol, the Dynamite Kid, proud. He gave his body to wrestling. In the end, he sacrificed his life and his body for professional wrestling.
In one way, Benoit should be celebrated. No, of course he shouldn't be celebrated for killing his family. That would be ridiculous. However, why does our society celebrate athletes like Kobe Bryant, who dedicated his life to basketball at a young age, reached the pinnacle of his profession, and also committed an unforgivable crime? Why is it that mentioning Benoit the athlete is taboo, but in Bryant's case, it is taboo to mention the rape?
When I was debating becoming a professional wrestler, and when I was training, one of my favorite wrestlers to watch was Benoit. I could write pages and pages on why, but the short version of the story is that he was very good at what he did. Benoit was that good in the ring because he sacrificed like few others would. He sacrificed his body, his mind, his health, his sex drive, and many other things average people take for granted - for the business. If I were a young basketball player, is the game of Kobe not one I should emulate? Shouldn't young people emulate the work ethic and sacrifices that successful people make?
As a society we emulate people like Richard Pryor and give him credit for changing comedy, yet downplay that he was an addict and an abuser. Generations of kids grew up emulating athletes who were arrested for drugs or violence. Roman Polanski has been given numerous awards for him film-making, even though for years he has lived in exile to avoid facing pedophilia charges. One of the most popular shows on television features an abusive whore-mongering addict named Charlie Sheen. Michael Vick killed numerous dogs for fun, yet is on the football field every week.
Even in wrestling, there are examples of a double standard. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka once killed a woman in a drug fueled rampage in a hotel in Allentown, PA while an employee of the WWF/WWE. Not only that, but charges were never even pressed against Snuka for the killing. In fact, he got off scott free for the killing in large part due to Vince McMahon portraying Snuka as a "mindless savage" who "didn't know any better" to the authorities. Yet, Snuka still appears on WWE broadcasts. His name is not taboo. Snuka's existence is still acknowledged.
So, why is what Chris Benoit did in the final days of his life so much worse than what others have done? Why isn't the example he set used as a tool to teach? If years of abusing his body in such a manner led to his family's annihilation, why are his life choices not highlighted and drawn attention to, in an effort to prevent another incident in the future? Why is it that we can separate personal shortcomings from the body of work of individuals like Simpson, Pryor, Snuka, Bryant, Polanski, and Sheen, but cannot separate Benoit's ring work from his family life?
The reasons that the WWE have for not mentioning Benoit are many, but when taken in context, are designed more to keep up with the company's public image than anything else. Benoit being a taboo subject is a public relations move. In addition, the Benoit and Eddy Guerrero deaths shed light on many of the business practices of the WWE, which is something that McMahon might be angry about. Maybe by erasing Benoit from the "WWE Universe", McMahon is also hoping to erase the bad press Benoit's death gave his company.
My fear is that in a decade, no one will realize just how good Chris Benoit was in the ring. People are allowed to remember Ernest Hemingway for the books he wrote, not for his mental problems and suicide. After his death, Michael Jackson was celebrated for his music, not for being a child rapist. Why is it that we cannot celebrate Benoit for being one of the all time greats in the squared circle?
Originally published 3 February, 2010 here.