02.10.12

Rick Santorum, Family Values Candidate and Pro Wrestling Advocate?

The future candidate helped the WWE elude athletic regulators in Pennsylvania—which opened the door to a wave of steroid abuses and other unintended consequences.

Rick Santorum was a lawyer for professional wrestling.

It sounds like a surreal plot of political pulp fiction, but it’s true.

Back in the late 1980s, the family-values candidate played a central role in deregulating professional wrestling in Pennsylvania as part of a team that lobbied the state government to get wrestling’s status changed from sport to entertainment.

The implications were far reaching for the mini-empire now known as WWE, run by the family of the current Republican Senate candidate from Connecticut, Linda McMahon. By officially dispensing with the illusion that professional wrestling was a sport, rather than entertainment, they were able to pump up profits by avoiding local taxes and fees paid to the state athletic commission. But in addition, the elimination of government oversight helped enable the proliferation of steroid abuse among performers.

“Deregulation is a huge story,” says Irvin Muchnick, the author of Wrestling Babylon who blogs at Concussion Inc.. “It leads to the whole ‘cocktail of death’ problem that they have, the occupational health and safety area of sports and entertainment right now… Wrestling did not become safer for the performer. It became more dangerous.”

“The use of weapons and chair shots and dangerous ‘can you top this’ stunts became greater and greater,” explains Muchnick. “What we have today is a situation where wrestlers are just killing each other for uninterrupted junk entertainment. And there’s no regulation, there’s no brake on it at all.”

In just one snapshot of the human costs, an investigation by USA Today found that 65 professional wrestlers under the age of 45 died between 1997 and 2004—many dying of drug overdoses, suicide, or coronary disease, with prematurely enlarged hearts.

To be clear, deregulation did not directly cause these deaths, but it contributed to an environment where abuses can increasingly occur.

Santorum has never denied his role in deregulating wrestling in Pennsylvania as an associate counsel at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in the late 1980s, but when asked about this odd chapter in his professional history, he understandably focuses on the free-market financial benefits of his efforts.

“I was at the center of that,” Santorum proudly told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Pennsylvania was the most pernicious of states when it came to regulation. They made you pay all this money to the boxing [athletic] commission. They used to just rape these guys. You’d have to pay a certain percentage of the gate receipts to have these officials just stand around and watch the match. It was ridiculous.”

No doubt there was some red tape that could have been cut. But the deregulation of wrestling in Pennsylvania also helped establish a new industry standard that unleashed a series of presumably unintended consequences.

Somewhat bizarrely, the future senator and presidential candidate called Muchnick at home after the publication of a 1988 Washington Monthly article on the subject of wrestling’s deregulation.

In the wake of Pennsylvania, “the WWE just abandoned states where regulations were tough at all,” asserts Muchnick. “For example, in Oregon, they banned the use of a blade—you know, the razor blade under your wristband–pulled out and nicking your forehead to draw blood and excite the crowd. So when they couldn’t do that anymore, they just sort of didn’t do shows in Oregon.”

Rick Santorum’s interest in the subject of professional wrestling wasn’t just reflected in billable hours. Somewhat bizarrely, the future senator and presidential candidate called Muchnick at home after the publication of a 1988 Washington Monthly article on the subject of wrestling’s deregulation. “I vividly remember the conversation because he was reading lines from the story about lobbyists and legislators and just laughing uproariously … It was like attack of the assholes.” Muchnick recounts. “I wasn’t taking copious notes because I didn’t know the guy would run for president—he was just some guy calling me in 1988—but it was a very strange experience. Maybe he was just high on politico adrenaline.”

Politico adrenaline or not, Santorum’s self-described central role in the deregulation of professional wrestling—and his apparent personal enthusiasm for the non-sport—is a curious detail in the faith-based, family-values candidate’s biography.

But the larger issue is about the human costs of excessive deregulation—a small but concrete example of what can happen when conservative campaign rhetoric about the evils of regulation meets reality.

“Wrestling is at a new level of revenue and marketing and so forth,” concludes  Muchnick. “But they’ve got people dropping dead every year. And is that an acceptable tradeoff for our society?”