Thursday, July 5, 2007

I suppose it was inevitable. No sooner had police discovered the bodies of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy and their 7-year old son in their suburban Atlanta home, than the media world — starved for headlines since Paris Hilton no longer was throwing tantrums at or en route to jail — went into 24/7 overdrive.

The local district attorney started the frenzy in the hours following the initial discovery of the three bodies when he teased the media by revealing that the nascent investigation already had uncovered “bizarre” details. The circus was off and running.

Already media across the country and pundits in the nation’s capital have indicted the entire world of pro wrestling. Calls for its regulation are already bouncing around the corridors of the Congress, where many in both the majority and the minority are salivating at the prospect of hearings into the theatrical and profitable World Wrestling Entertainment.

Were the Congress not on its two-week July Fourth recess, we would likely already be watching House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman conducting well-orchestrated hearings into how lack of union protection and socialized medicine is causing a wave of “human tragedy” like the Benoit murders-suicide.

Medical doctors who — in our still-somewhat free system — are able to prescribe steroids and other drugs subject to abuse by various users, whether a home-run king wannabe or a pro football player intent on maintaining the seven-figure incomes many view as their birthright, are similarly coming under fire in the wake of the Benoit murders.

As often occurs in knee-jerk responses to highly publicized tragedies or scandals, rose colored-glasses are donned by the regulators and those clamoring for government to step in and rescue the “tainted” profession, sport or business. Legislators lose whatever connection to common sense they might previously have possessed; and knowledge of past regulatory fiascoes is quickly forgotten in the rush to “reform.” As usually occurs also, disgruntled former members of the targeted profession or sport eagerly step to the front of the parade to bash their former colleagues and grab a headline in the bargain.

In the Benoit case, former wrestling malcontent Jim Wilson is suddenly the go-to “expert” for media interviews designed to bash pro wrestling. The deaths have provided a stage tailor-made from which Mr. Wilson can renew his longstanding call to unionize his former profession. In the best “Alice-in-Wonderland” tradition, Mr. Wilson and other pundits are citing unionization as the magic wand for wrestlers’ pension plans, health benefits, higher safety standards, a more equitable pay structure, and even greater marital bliss by allowing them more time at home.

Over the course of America’s history, voluntary unions have greatly improved the conditions under which the country’s workers perform their tasks. To call for unionization of pro wrestling as a cure-all for the evils its critics are all too eager to lay at its feet, however, is naive in the extreme. Unions in fact mirror the good, the bad and the ugly of the society of which they are a part; and the benefits are neither universal nor inevitable.

For example, decades of unionization in other pro sports have not vastly improved their quality. While salaries in those sports soared with collective bargaining — as did remuneration for the agents and lawyers negotiating the salaries — drug abuse and other aberrant behavior have hardly diminished. In fact, many would argue persuasively that unionization has made it more, not less, difficult to police positive standards of behavior.

What demons caused 40-year old Chris Benoit to commit the evil acts he apparently did, we may never know. Whether drug use played any role in this bizarre final chapter in his life, we may or may not discover, based on autopsy reports and a careful study of evidence not yet uncovered or analyzed.

What does need to be kept in mind is that a rush to judgment, replete with salacious speculation and argumentative talk-show hosts, will yield nothing but prejudice and ill-advised interference.

Pro wrestling is one of America’s most popular spectator sports even though it is largely outside the federal government’s regulatory grasp. That probably rankles many a congressman and federal bureaucrat.

However, the sport’s free-wheeling nature is an essential part of its appeal. Subjecting pro wrestling to the control of federal regulators will lead only to the gentrification and eventual death of a sport millions of Americans love to watch largely because it is free-spirited.

The Chris Benoit murders and suicide are a tragedy not to be downplayed; but condemning and possibly destroying an entire sport in response would be outrageous and un-American (at least as that word once was understood).

Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. Attorney there.

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