Wrestling with danger

These gaudy giants' loyal kid fans sometimes try to imitate them - with tragic results

Twelve-year-old Adam Cochran had a problem. He was smaller than most of his classmates. As a result, he was an easy target for the boys whose imagination had been taken over by the world of professional wrestling.

He was being body-slammed and tossed whenever he got together with certain friends. He tried asking them nicely to stop, but they wouldn't listen. The last straw was being dropped on his head.

"That really hurt, even on a bed," says the eighth-grader from Valley Glen, Calif.

Being the editor of the school's newspaper, he decided to write an editorial, lambasting "that sport where men in rather tight clothing 'pound the living daylights' out of one another." Fortunately for Adam, that - and a policy statement from his school's headmaster, explicitly outlawing all wrestling moves on campus - managed to take wrestling off his daily exercise regimen.

But if statistics that are just now beginning to be examined by law-enforcement agencies around the country are an indication, the TV entertainment that one wrestler calls "soap opera on testosterone" has quite deliberately moved into the daily lives of an ever-younger audience, with what former Texas judge Catherine Crier calls increasingly tragic results.

"Our children are being unfairly targeted," says Ms. Crier, who hosts a Court TV special on April 3 (10-11 p.m.) that investigates the legal implications of children killing children as they imitate wrestling moves they see on TV. According to the program, at least five known cases of child deaths have resulted.

"A full one-third of today's wrestling audience is under 14," Crier says. "Wrestling has been rescripted, admittedly so, for kids." She points to the proliferation of cartoonish characters who "prowl the stage with easy story lines to follow night after night."

Merchandising action figures based on the outlandish wrestlers is a hot source of income for the various wrestling franchises, most notably the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), based in Stamford, Conn.

"They're all appropriately marked 'for ages 4 and up,' " Crier says, "but like Joe Camel's creators, these guys will tell you that they're not marketing to kids."

WWF's "Raw is War," on the USA Network, is the top-rated show on cable TV, watched in 6 million homes. WWF's "SmackDown!" on UPN is watched in 5 million homes, and the WWF's pay-per-view TV events bring in millions more every month, the Associated Press reports.

The WWF did not answer repeated requests for interviews from the Monitor on the subject of marketing to children. In the coming Court TV special, Linda McMahon, president and chief executive officer of the WWF, says simply "we do not market to children."

Even those within the industry find that the growing emphasis on sexual stereotypes, vulgarity, and increasingly risky violence is particularly worrisome, given the targeting of an ever-younger audience. "The next WWF Web site is www.hotrain.com, which stands for whore," says Christopher Cruise, a longtime wrestling announcer. "And the next WWF product is a clothing line aimed at 18-to-24-month-old children."

"We are definitely in a different era than 10 or 15 years ago," says Terry Funk, a 35-year veteran of the national wrestling circuit. The Texan wrestles for World Championship Wrestling (WCW), a competitor to the WWF.

"What's going on now is different than at any other time," he says. "You have not just weekly ratings, but minutes where they say during a show, 'This guy's boring, get him off.' " The father of two grown children says that in his hometown of Amarillo, Texas, he's seen the effect of three local stations turning into 200 cable or satellite offerings. "This has produced a thing in our society where we have no shame and the worst offense is to be boring," he says. That pressure to get eyeballs at all costs has taken pro wrestling in the no-holds-barred direction it's gone in recent years, he adds.

Funk is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Beyond the Mat," a behind-the-scenes look at the private as well as physical pain pro wrestlers endure. During the course of the three years filmmaker Barry Blaustein took to complete the film, Funk went through several "retirements," the most recent of which ended in December when the WCW called him in desperation.

"I got called because they had a huge number of injuries," he says, adding that he was only supposed to stay for a week. He's still performing for the franchise and says he doesn't know what will happen in six months when the current six-month contract is up. He details the impact a life in wrestling has had on him.

"I've had my elbows operated on, both my knees are shot, I've got stitches everywhere," he says with an accepting sigh. "I'm beat up. I feel like I'm 80."

Mr. Blaustein's documentary dispels an idea that the WWF has tacitly supported in recent years - the notion that wrestling is all fake, neatly choreographed, and safe.

"Guys get hurt all the time," Blaustein says. "Yes, the endings are predetermined; yes, some of the moves are choreographed. But when they get hit in the head, these are real metal chairs. And a lot of the time when they're trying to ward off the blows, those are real attempts. These are all more real than you have any idea."

While wrestling's critics agree about the potential problems inherent in children watching these shows, what is less clear is what should be done.

"Wrestling is being unfairly targeted," says UPN president Dean Valentine, whose network is home to "WWF Smackdown!" He insists the issue belongs squarely with parents, not with broadcasters, who he says put parental ratings on the shows.

Crier suggests that there may be legal avenues to pursue in forcing networks to be more responsible.

And there are larger issues, others say. "This will be one of the watershed questions of the 21st century," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "As communication gets more efficient and omnipresent through this spiral of technology, we have to ask, 'Is information and communication so dangerous in some of its iterations that we need ... to protect the public from it?' "

Mr. Thompson suggests that moving in this direction takes the discussion from the traditional arena of First Amendment-protected free expression into the realm of a public-health issue. Once this happens, he says, "You've made a fundamental shift from the way we've thought about most of these issues during most of the history of our republic."

Many parents have taken matters in their own hands.

"My feeling about these [parents]," says Anne Cochran, Adam's mother, "is they have the equivalent brain to mine. If they can't figure out the dangers for themselves, if they can't see the stupidity in letting their kids go over the edge on anything all I can do is throw my hands in the air and protect my own."

The first time Adam came home from one of the wrestling incidents, she says, he told her he didn't want to go back. "I said, 'not only do you not want to go back, I won't let you.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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