CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease most commonly found in professional athletes from football, hockey and other contact sports. Professional wrestlers are not immune from CTE risks. The latest case is from recently-deceased former WWE star Joanie “Chyna” Laurer.
Laurer died on April 20 and now a rep for the wrestler tells ET that her brain has been donated to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the real-life doctor who was brought to life on the big screen by Will Smith in “Concussion” and who is the first doctor to publish findings about CTE in professional football players.
Professional wrestling has long been called “fake,” and while matches and sparring are definitely choreographed, that doesn’t mean injuries don’t happen and are not real.
In fact, in early 2015, two former wrestlers filed a lawsuit against the WWE that is similar to many suits against the NFL. In the lawsuit, wrestlers cite disabilities, memory loss, migraines and other symptoms stemming from the repeated blows to the head suffered while competing for the WWE.
“Under the guise of providing entertainment, the WWE has, for decades, subjected its wrestlers to extreme physical brutality that it knew, or should have known, caused created latent conditions and long-term irreversible bodily damage, including brain damage,” said the lawsuit (via Fox News).
Furthermore, former WWE wrestler CM Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, says that he knows he had a concussion during a Royal Rumble once, but he passed the concussion test “with flying colors.” Brooks says he told the trainers at the time that the test was “worthless” and that he wasn’t going back out in the ring. “Let’s just call it [a concussion] now,” he said.
But wrestling, like professional football, has a long way to go with its concussion protocols.
Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and Harvard graduate who is now the co-founder and executive director of Concussion Legacy Foundation, told CBS News in 2014 that he knows he had concussions while wrestling, but he wasn’t made aware by the WWE that they were anything to be concerned about.
“I had to stop [wrestling] from a concussion I got in June 2003 here i got kicked in the head — immediately was confused, forgot where I was, what I was doing,” recounted Nowinski. “We got to the end of the match, but I had a headache that just wouldn’t go away. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that that was a big deal. … I kept lying about how bad I was for five weeks.”
Is it CTE that led to Chyna’s death? The wrestler is believed to have died from a drug overdose, but perhaps it was CTE that made her spiral into depression and misusing prescription drugs, as common symptoms of the condition include aggression, anxiety, depression, impaired judgment, impulse control problems and suicidal thoughts.
A rep for Chyna says an intervention was being planned at the same time the wrestler died.
“The intervention was for the pills to get her under watch. Two weeks ago I begged her to get under control, and she knew — she knew she had a problem. We talked about it. I believed she was ready to get help and that’s why we were planning an intervention,” the rep tells ET.
Whether Chyna suffered from CTE or not, donating her brain to science makes her the latest in a long line of professional athletes to do so, or pledge to do so upon death.
John Cena recently told TMZ Sports he would donate his brain to be studied if it would help people. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also pledged to donate his brain on Twitter after retweeting a Sports Illustrated article about three Oakland Raiders pledging to donate their brains to CTE research in honor of the late Ken Stabler, who it was discovered posthumously suffered from Stage 3 CTE.