On the eve of its biggest annual event, professional wrestling was hit with a blow Friday when a national newspaper raised questions about the role of steroids and painkillers in the lives -- and deaths -- of wrestlers.
USA Today reported in an investigation that at least 65 wrestlers among the 1,000 under age 45 who had performed professionally since 1997 had died, including 25 from heart attacks or other coronary problems. It termed that rate "extraordinarily high ... for people that young."
In five of the 25 deaths, the paper reported, medical examiners said that steroids could have played a role. In 12 other deaths, medical reports cited evidence of painkillers, cocaine and other drugs.
The paper also said that 15 current and former wrestlers it interviewed, including one-time World Wrestling Entertainment star "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, admitted to using anabolic steroids and pain pills to grow larger and fight off injuries. Some said they also used human-growth hormones and recreational drugs.
WWE chairman Vince McMahon told USA Today that the wrestlers it quoted "took steroids because they wanted to" and noted that only two of the 65 wrestlers it cited had died while working for his company. "It is alarming whenever young people pass away from these insidious causes," he said, "but you can't help someone if they don't want to help themselves."
McMahon himself was indicted for conspiring to distribute steroids to wrestlers, but was acquitted in 1994. Shortly after, McMahon's organization began a strict drug-testing program. That program was abandoned in 1996 and has not been resumed.