Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and sports spending: From Olympics to the WWF

Monday, 20 February 2012 09:31
Print
santorumRick021412_optBY EVAN WEINER
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS

You knew sooner or later that sports would become an issue on the 2012 Presidential campaign trail.

Mitt Romney ran the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and Rick Santorum was a lobbyist for the World Wrestling Federation in the late 1980s. Santorum's job as a World Wrestling Federation hired gun apparently was to make sure Pennsylvania state officials were no longer closely monitoring Vince and Linda McMahon's business.

Santorum and others did manage to rescue the McMahon's from the state regulators and help allow the McMahons to do business unfettered.

Santorum's role with the WWF was what lobbyists do: persuade lawmakers to change the rules to benefit their clients. But here is a problem. Santorum's help in getting state officials off the McMahon's collective back in Pennsylvania along with Santorum-like lobbyists in other states turned the WWF into an almost a lawless society (illegal drug usage) and a soap opera complete with storylines that Santorum would probably dismiss as spiritually devoid of values.

But in a 2008 speech at Ave Maria University in Florida, which was unearthed by Right Wing Watch, Santorum went after the National Basketball Association (a league that has had far fewer deaths of performers than pro wrestling and a league that tries to sell personality as part of an entertainment package not wrestlers kissing the bare rear end of the boss McMahon (in one storyline and there were far darker wrestling storylines than that) and rock concerts.

Santorum went after an entity, the NBA, which has a New York liberal as a commissioner who has imposed a dress code and has suspended players for bad behavior. NBA Commissioner David Stern, for his heavy handed tactics during the 2011 lockout, was accused by the "noted" philosopher and journalist Bryant Gumbel of “acting like a modern-day plantation overseer" during the owners-players negotiations.

Rick Santorum didn't help create the National Basketball Association culture but he did help create the modern World Wrestling Entertainment group. Oddly enough Vince McMahon told this reporter in 1984 that he intended to be the Walt Disney of the 1980s. In the 1990s, NBA Commissioner David Stern told this reporter that he wanted to make every NBA arena like Disneyland.

It will be interesting to see if Santorum teams up with Linda McMahon on the campaign trail in Connecticut and if any political reporters ask about McMahon's business.

In 2010, Santorum endorsed Linda McMahon in her race against Richard Blumenthal. McMahon lost by 12 points in a rout.

The wife of World Wrestling Entertainment Czar Vince McMahon and the former WWE Chief Executive Officer Linda McMahon is running again for the United States Senate for the State of Connecticut. In 2010, McMahon ran as an outsider and a job creator. She claimed she knew how to help create jobs in her state and elsewhere because she ran a successful business. But in 2009 and 2010 Linda McMahon was no outsider to politics. The World Wrestling Federation lobbied various states to decouple the "sport" from state athletic regulations. The McMahons argued that wrestling was a scripted entertainment and convinced lawmakers that it was really not much different from entertainment shows.

There was a reason that the McMahons wanted to get away from state athletic regulators. Wrestling resides in a murky area in sports and entertainment. The genre has some athleticism but in 1989 Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey State Senate that his product was not a bona fide competition and that wrestling matches were staged events. McMahon was trying to catch some tax breaks from the state of New Jersey for his live shows and his pay-per-view TV offerings by claiming his genre was not a sport.

Santorum was one of those hired lawyer/lobbyists that the McMahon's needed to twist arms in various statehouses. Santorum was one of people the McMahons relied on in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


The McMahons decided that Pennsylvania had too much say in their business. Eventually the state elected officials saw it the McMahons way.

The McMahon's successful business was built on a house of cards in 1984 after Vince McMahon decided to "rewrite" the rules of professional wrestling and invade other promoters’ territories. McMahon's World Wrestling Federation had the big east coast markets, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and other cities and the other big wrestling promoters, the NWA's Crockett family and the AWA's Vern Gagne totally misread the landscape thinking McMahon had the money to pull off the national expansion. According to one insider, McMahon did everything he could to find money and rolled the dice on Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1985.

The McMahons won.

Madison Square Garden was packed, the money flowed in and the WWF had a solid financial footing.

McMahon's wrestlers looked like super heroes out of comic books with enormously sculptured bodies. There were also some "steroid-rage" incidents involving a few wrestlers outside the ring but steroids were not deemed illegal until President George Bush signed legislation in 1990 banning the substance. Vince McMahon was indicted in November of 1993 on charges of possession of steroids and conspiracy to distribute steroids. McMahon beat the rap after a jury came back with a not guilty verdict on July 22, 1994. In 2005, McMahon’s wrestling circuit was still wrestling with drug issues and following the death of Eddie Guerrero, the McMahons imposed new drug testing policies.

The McMahons knew they had a problem on their hands and according to the WWE website, "(the) WWE implemented a WWE Talent Wellness Program on Feb. 27, 2006. The WWE Talent Wellness Program is administered independent of WWE by (a) team of physicians." The statement goes onto say that "the Substance Abuse and Drug Testing Policy prohibits the use of drugs by WWE talent for other than a legitimate medical purpose pursuant to a valid prescription from a licensed and treating physician. The use of masking agents and/or diuretics to conceal or obscure the use of prohibited drugs is also forbidden."

Despite the policy, wrestlers are still dying in alarming numbers.

The WWF, now WWE, has not faced the same sort of scrutiny that professional sportswriters and other gadflies heaped upon Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and former Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr. Not many professional sportswriters aside from Frank Deford, Phil Mushnick and some wrestling reporters nor the gadflies around wrestling have bothered to take a closer look at the mortality rate of wrestlers who may have been using banned performance enhancing drugs. The percentage of professional wrestlers who died under the age of 50 in the past decade from a drug overdose or of heart attack, liver or kidney failure brought on by drug abuse is high far than the mortality rate in the general population.

Former Minnesota Governor and one time McMahon wrestler Jesse Ventura in a 2008 interview on the Howard Stern radio show that he was fired by the company after Hulk Hogan told Vince McMahon that Ventura was trying to unionize wrestlers.

WWE performers are independent contractors which means that the McMahons do not pay social security benefits, Medicare contributions and unemployment insurance. The McMahons have contended they pay wrestlers extremely well and that makes up for the lack of benefits. It is unknown how many former wrestlers who suffered disabling injuries are now on the government dole getting social security insurance or Medicare to pay medical bills.

The NBA, which apparently bothered Santorum in 2008, takes care of the employees who perform with medical and other benefits.

Linda McMahon and Rick Santorum should be asked they think of social security and health care and find out how many wrestlers now in their 40s and 50s that performed for the WWF/WWE that are getting government support. Santorum, who is running a faith-based moral values campaign, should field inquiries about storylines that included something that called the "Mr. McMahon Kiss My Ass Club" where wrestlers performed the act. There should also be a question or two about the debasing of women as part of the on-going “soap opera”.


This is the business Rick Santorum freed from the shackles of state regulations in Pennsylvania.

Linda McMahon has claimed though she was not on the creative side of the business.

Former McMahon employees have criticized the company of not having a union, and one father of a deceased wrestler may have touched a nerve that brain damaged football players are beginning to talk about.

Michael Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit -- the wrestler who on June 24, 2007 killed his son and wife then hanged himself -- claimed in a Hartford Courant interview in May that the McMahons didn't take proper care of their employees and just used the wrestlers to line their pockets.

"My son, Chris Benoit, 40, was one of WWE's top superstars. In June 2007, our lives changed dramatically, when he tragically killed his wife, son and himself. The press jumped on steroids as the cause of his actions. But tests showed that brain damage in the form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, not steroids, was responsible for our loss. CTE, caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, can bring on serious disorders such as a loss of emotional control, addictions to drugs and alcohol, depression, aggressive and violent behavior."

This is the world Santorum helped create with his work as a lobbyist. It is a given that the NBA will not hold any fundraisers at Madison Square Garden for Rick Santorum. The NBA tried to help out of one the league's family members in the 2000 President campaign cycle. The league held a Bill Bradley fundraiser at Madison Square Garden.

Bradley received help at his Garden fundraiser from Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Bob Cousy, his onetime Knicks teammate and roommate Dave DeBusschere, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, three other Knicks teammates Willis Reed, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, Bob Petit, Oscar Robertson, Nancy Lieberman-Cline, Wes Unseld, Dolph Schayes, Elvin Hayes, Nate Archibald, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham, Jerry Lucas, Rebecca Lobo and Grant Hill. Spike Lee had a courtside seat along with the actor Harvey Keitel. Tennis great John McEnroe and Pro Football Hall of Famer quarterback Joe Namath were there too. Namath, of course was New York's big star leading the Jets to a Super Bowl championship in 1969 at the same time that Bradley and his Knicks teammates became championship contenders.

Patrons were paying New York Knicks-type prices to enter the Garden as tickets for the fund raiser ranged from $100-1,000. The fundraiser put money in Bradley's campaign but ultimately it did not help as Vice President Al Gore beat Bradley and others to get the party nomination.

While Santorum continues to preach his vision of religion and family values on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney is now under attack for accepting government money to cover the costs of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney ended up being the Salt Lake City committee boss after it was revealed that Salt Lake City Olympic Committee delegates bribed International Olympic Committee voters in the lead up to the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games.


Before there was a George Mitchel Report in baseball dealing illegal or banned performance enhancing drug usage there was a George Mitchell report on the Olympics. Mitchell’s 1999 report was loaded with findings that suggested a pattern of improper actions including bribery within the Olympics movement.

The whole business of the International Olympic Committee and the awarding of either a winter or summer festival is at best an inexact science to be polite. But Romney was not involved in the Salt Lake City bid he was brought into the committee in 1999 when the local Olympic committee's ship took on water and nearly capsized the boat.

Romney, according to reports, worked on Washington to get money to right the ship. Arizona Senator John McCain, who recently endorsed Romney, took to the Senate floor in 2000 to rail about how much money the federal government was sending to Salt Lake City.

Understand this about the International Olympic Committee and the awarding of the Olympics:  buyer beware. Once you get it, the IOC makes you responsible for cost overruns. Romney had to play by the IOC's rules and the IOC acts as if it is a sovereign state.

Romney went after earmarks to help bail out the sinking Salt Lake City ship and in a 2000 letter to the General Accounting Office, Romney wrote the Salt Lake games was “a massive undertaking” and "recognizing that our government spends billions of dollars to maintain wartime capability, it is entirely appropriate to invest several hundred million dollars to promote peace.”

John McCain's speech on the Senate floor should be re-read by everyone who ever entertains the idea of hosting and Olympics and dealing with the IOC.

"The Olympic Games supposedly hosted and funded by Salt Lake City, which began in corruption and bribery, has now turned into is an incredible pork-barrel project for Salt Lake City and its environs.”

That is what the Olympics movement is all about and the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and the enormous debt of hosting the Olympics is being felt to this day in Greece. It took Canada, Quebec and Montreal 30 years to pay down the debt of the 1976 Montreal Summer Games. Canadian tax dollars went to paying the bills.

Romney got the Olympics money or "earmarks" thanks to Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett. It is estimated that American taxpayers pumped $1.5 billion into the Salt Lake Games, a figure that was increased after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The military had more boots on the ground in Utah than in Afghanistan at the time.

So sports spending and sports laws have seeped into the 2012 Presidential campaign. It should come as no surprise. Sports and government are partners. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are spent to keep the sports machine going and favorable sports legislation has enriched the industry whether it was the deregulation of professional wrestling by individual states or Congressional lawmakers helping the Olympics movement.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com and Amazon.

ALSO BY EVAN WEINER

N.J. Nets to take part in NBA's celebration of ABA rivals

Madonna's Super Bowl halftime and why Janet Jackson trumps Michael Jackson in impact

The NFL: A study in socialism and capitalism

There is more to Indianapolis sports than the Super Bowl

For San Francisco 49ers, N.Y. Giants game is not the most important contest of the year

Meet the Mets and the Wilpon-Katz trio that drove them into the ground

Sports programming deals will raise your cable TV bill in 2012

Baseball Writers’ vote for 2012 Hall of Fame class is a conflict of interest

The NBA hype machine is back: Let the circus begin

Barry Bonds and Ryan Braun stories cap off bad week for sports journalists

Bernie Fine story shows why Disney's ESPN and 'SportsCenter' are not real journalism

Snowbirds are paying for Miami Marlins' new stadium

Sportswriters and the NBA lockout blame game

Americans dote on sports celebrities like Joe Paterno

When Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971

NBA Lockout: Bryant Gumbel is wrong about David Stern being a racist