“Linda McMahon’s Husband Vince Fought the Law, and the Law Lost,” published in seven installments December 21-27, became the most-viewed story in the history of the Wrestling Babylon / Chris & Nancy blog. The complete text of the series is reproduced below as a single article.
DR. GEORGE ZAHORIAN
In 1994 World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon – husband of Linda McMahon, current Senate candidate in Connecticut and former CEO of WWE – was acquitted of federal steroid trafficking and conspiracy charges in a sensational trial on Long Island. This seven-part blog series chronicles that episode and surrounding events.
The story begins in 1991, when George Zahorian, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, physician, became the first doctor convicted under the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which prohibited the prescription of steroids for non-therapeutic purposes.
Throughout the 1980s, Zahorian was the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission-appointed ringside doctor at pro wrestling events in his region of the state. In the early part of the decade, this included the Allentown and Hamburg syndicated television tapings of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation. Zahorian was even fed on-camera roles in several TV story lines (known in wrestling as “angles”).
Dozens of steroid-abusing wrestlers utilized Zahorian, an easy-touch, heavy-duty connection. As the wrestlers lined up for their blood-pressure tests before Zahorian-administered shows in Pennsylvania, they and the doctor openly exchanged cash for bags of drugs. Federal investigators produced voluminous FedEx records of shipments from Zahorian’s office to WWF performers. At the trial, several of these wrestlers confirmed that their shipments had included steroids.
Two key recipients of Zahorian packages who did not testify at the trial were Hulk Hogan, WWF’s most famous wrestler, and Vince McMahon, who, in addition to being the kingpin of the industry, is an obsessed amateur bodybuilder.
Hogan was subpoenaed, but lawyer Jerry McDevitt succeeded in getting the judge to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it invaded Hogan’s privacy and harmed his business interests. Appearing on Arsenio Hall’s TV talk show right after the trial, Hogan denied that he had ever abused steroids – a contention so laughable that it would open the floodgates for accusers to go on record over the next year on a range of internal WWF scandals.
Unlike Hogan and the other wrestlers, Vince McMahon was not subpoenaed for the Zahorian trial. After the doctor was convicted and sentenced to federal prison, McMahon instituted a steroid-testing program for WWF talent. In the course of announcing the program at a news conference, McMahon conceded that he personally had “experimented” with the anabolic steroid Deca-Durabulin.
1992 DRUG AND SEX SCANDALS
In 1992 some of Hulk Hogan’s former wrestling colleagues exposed him as an abuser of both steroids and recreational drugs, in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times and in an article in People magazine. As a West Coast stringer for People, I reported the latter piece, which was collected in my 2007 book, WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal.
Revelations of WWF drug abuse – spurred by the federal conviction of wrestlers’ steroid connection Dr. George Zahorian, and by Hogan’s lies about his relationship with Zahorian – were soon followed by allegations of both heterosexual and homosexual harassment of company talent and employees. In the latter category, two former wrestlers and key front-office employees, Terry Garvin and Pat Patterson, were implicated.
Another man, Mel Phillips – who supervised setting up the rings at WWF arena shows and also served as a backup ring announcer – was exposed as a pedophile who habitually used his position to exploit hangers-on from broken homes.
Collectively, the WWF scandals had one persistent media forum: the sports and media columns of Phil Mushnick of the New York Post. Thanks to Mushnick’s reporting, a federal grand jury began investigating WWF.
(I am not related to Phil Mushnick, a friend of many years’ standing who wrote the foreword to my recently published book, CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death. In 1993 Vince McMahon sued Mushnick and the Post for libel, and McMahon’s lawyers served me with a subpoena. Citing California’s journalist shield law, my attorney got the subpoena dropped. Later the libel suit itself was dropped.)
The most disturbing allegations against Garvin, Patterson, and Phillips were leveled by a former teenage ring attendant, Tom Cole. When Cole sued WWF, and Mushnick and others reported the allegations, all three named WWF figures were separated from the company.
Just before the filming of an episode of the Phil Donahue Show focusing on the scandals, Cole settled his lawsuit. Under the terms, Cole was given back his old WWF job. A short time later he wound up leaving WWF again and for good, claiming that the company had reneged on commitments to him. The last time I spoke to Cole, in 2000, he was married and owned a small business.
Patterson, McMahon’s right-hand man for matchmaking and story lines, had quietly returned to his job as a creative eminence grise just a few weeks after his 1993 resignation. Patterson, now retired, still consults for WWE.
1994 DRUG TRIAL
Following the conviction of ringside doctor George Zahorian in 1991, and the serial drug and sex scandals which roiled the then-World Wrestling Federation in 1992, a federal grand jury investigated. In 1993 Vince McMahon was indicted on steroid trafficking and conspiracy charges. The trial was held on Long Island the following July.
Two pieces of wrestling-style theatrics marked the proceedings. Just before the trial, McMahon had surgery to repair a neck injury. He came into the courtroom wearing a neck brace, and some observers speculated that he had timed the procedure in order to give himself a prop that would make him look more sympathetic before the jury.
Also, at one point during the trial, the bailiff told Judge Jacob Mishler that someone in the spectators’ gallery was talking to the jurors and seemingly trying to intimidate or influence them. That spectator was Afa Anoa’i, a 300-plus-pound retired Samoan wrestler who now trained WWF wannabes and rookies in Pennsylvania. Anoa’i had been seen sitting near the jury box, staring at jurors and softly mouthing the words “not guilty … not guilty.” Judge Mishler told Anoa’i to stop it.
(Anoa’i happens to be an uncle of Eddie “Umaga” Fatu, the WWE wrestler who died recently at age 36. Fatu had been fired by WWE in June for refusing to go into drug rehabilitation, but he was set to return to the company when he suffered his fatal heart attack.)
In the trial itself, the prosecution never succeeded in directly attaching McMahon to a coordinated effort around illegal steroid distribution. In the absence of such evidence, the conspiracy allegations fell apart. He was acquitted of all charges.
The testimony of a former WWF front-office employee, Anita Scales, suggested that McMahon’s defense was aided by a tip that had led the company to drop Zahorian just as the doctor was about to be busted.
Before the passage of 1987 deregulatory legislation in Pennsylvania, pro wrestling ringside physicians were appointed by the state athletic commission; thereafter they were hired by the promoters. Scales, who handled these logistics for WWF, testified at McMahon’s trial that she had wanted to cut off Zahorian, but was overruled by McMahon aide Pat Patterson. “The boys need their candy,” Patterson explained to Scales.
However, Vince and Linda McMahon then learned through social contacts that Zahorian was drawing heat from the feds, and the company stopped using him. Some think that decision made the difference in Vince’s own later acquittal. Others cite the holes in a weak government case, regardless of the resolution of Zahorian’s relationship with the WWF.
THE DEFENSE LAWYER, THE “FIXER,” AND THE PLAYBOY MODEL
At his 1994 trial on Long Island of federal drug trafficking and conspiracy charges, Vince McMahon’s defense team included Jerry McDevitt, his long-time trusted lawyer and troubleshooter. Another defense attorney was the prominent trial lawyer Laura Brevetti. In 1992-93, when President Clinton was looking to appoint a female attorney general, Brevetti’s name appeared on several published “short lists” of prospects. (This year she joined the New York office of the law firm K&L Gates, where McDevitt has long been a Pittsburgh-based partner.)
Brevetti’s husband, Martin Bergman, was a freelance television producer. (His brother, Lowell Bergman, was the investigative producer for 60 Minutes who would be portrayed by Al Pacino in The Insider, the movie about tobacco industry corruption.)
An important government witness at McMahon’s trial was his former secretary Emily Feinberg. She was also a former Playboy magazine model. Additionally, her husband was a WWF TV script writer.
During her WWF employment, Vince McMahon and Emily Feinberg were rumored to have had an affair. Vince and Linda McMahon have not talked about this in specifics, but their narrative includes the general acknowledgment that Vince cheated on her more than once while indulging in what he has termed the “party atmosphere” of the 1980s.
A year after McMahon’s trial acquittal, New York’s Village Voice published a long investigative story about Martin Bergman, who was described as a well-known “fixer.” The Voice article said that before Emily Feinberg’s trial testimony, Bergman contacted her under the guise of being a producer for a tabloid TV show. The suggestion was that, through his conversations with Feinberg, Bergman corrupted her direct testimony and aided the discrediting of it during cross-examination.
In the mid- and late 1990s, WWF lost millions of dollars and significant pro wrestling market share in fierce competition with Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling. Vince McMahon turned the tide of the war in his favor with a series of creative decisions that made major crossover stars out of wrestlers Steve Austin and, later, “The Rock” (now movie actor Dwayne Johnson).
In one of those decisions, McMahon turned himself from a “babyface” (good guy) to a “heel” (bad guy). Previously he had been known on camera only as a sympathetic TV announcer. Now he was pushed as “Mr. McMahon,” a greedy and manipulative corporate boss. The impetus for the big switch was McMahon’s set of dealings with his champion wrestler of the time, Bret Hart, before Hart left WWF for WCW. The scenario culminated in a November 1997 in-ring double-cross of Hart known as the “Montreal screwjob.”
In 1999 WWF broke attendance and profit records, and Vince and Linda McMahon decided to take their closely held company, TitanSports Inc., public. (World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc., was originally traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange. In the settlement of a trademark dispute with the World Wildlife Fund, the company would be renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. WWE stock is now traded on the New York Stock Exchange.)
In media accounts hyping the October 1999 initial public stock offering, Vince McMahon played up both his status as a cartoon villain and the perceived link to his real-life persona. McMahon ridiculed his federal prosecution five years earlier and even added a dose of fiction, falsely stating that he had been convicted of one of the charges.
To remind himself of this last talking point, McMahon kept a note about it on the cuff of his shirt.
WAXMAN COMMITTEE INTERVIEW
Following the June 2007 double-murder/suicide of World Wrestling Entertainment star wrestler Chris Benoit, two committees of the U.S. House of Representatives explored holding public hearings on the health and safety standards of the professional wrestling industry.
One was the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, then headed by Henry Waxman of California. Late in the year committee staff investigators interviewed Vince and Linda McMahon and other WWE officials, including contract administrators and doctors of the company’s talent wellness policy. This program – the third and most recent regime of the drug-testing of wrestlers of WWE and its predecessor WWF – had been instituted after another star wrestler, Eddie Guerrero, died suddenly in November 2005.
The transcripts of the Waxman Committee interviews, and even their existence, would not be released publicly until January 2009 – long after the calls for hearings on pro wrestling had died down. (There have been no such hearings by either that committee or the other that had expressed interest: the House Energy Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, chaired by Bobby Rush of Illinois.)
Vince McMahon’s interview with the Waxman staff took place on December 14, 2007.
When McMahon was told that anonymous sources had advised the committee that WWE’s “business model” relied on the talent’s use of “steroids or illegal drugs,” McMahon’s lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, interjected: “Vince, don’t even take these baits. You don’t have to answer those kind of questions.”
McMahon also was asked if he, himself, were subject to the wellness policy. McMahon replied that he was not. He explained that he performed inside the ring only a few times a year. Besides, he added, “I’m 62 [years old], not 26.”
McMahon then was asked if he had taken steroids since his 1992 admission after the Dr. George Zahorian trial.
Calling the question unfair and “bullshit,” McDevitt objected. “I’m not going to allow you to harass this man,” he said.
McMahon confirmed to the committee: “I’m refusing to answer the question.”
At his 1994 trial on steroid trafficking and conspiracy charges, I believe the jury of Vince McMahon’s peers got it right. In other words, the federal government failed to prove its case.
More broadly, I don’t jump to conclusions about McMahon’s criminal accountability for the outcomes of his peculiar industry – even if they stem, as they unquestionably do, from standards he personally created or enabled.
The best analogy, though it’s a weak one, is the role of owners in other, more legitimate sports. In 1998 Mark McGwire shattered major league baseball’s single-season home run record and was part of a manufactured feel-good narrative. Subsequently, the public has become aware that the explosion of baseball power-hitting, and the accompanying attendance records, were supported by steroid and Human Growth Hormone abuse. McGwire’s own links to this culture date all the way back to an FBI investigation in Michigan in the early 1990s. Yet no one has seriously contended that Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, should be tried in court for his vicariously profitable relationship to these misdeeds. (However, I am among those of the strong opinion that Selig does deserves all the ridicule and shame he has received, and then some.)
Linda and Vince McMahon’s story is a complex one of a stewardship whose excesses were far worse than baseball’s. Depending on your perspective, the fact that pro wrestling is a pseudo-sport makes what has happened there either more or less excusable: more excusable because “that’s entertainment”; less excusable because the consequence has been a public health problem – a pandemic of dozens upon dozens of avoidable deaths.
This blog series is a recognition that the McMahon family’s business success – the source of the wealth underwriting a campaign for the U.S. Senate – has been both complex and dramatic. World Wrestling Entertainment, at the pinnacle of an immensely profitable industry with carnival roots, has a horrible record of health and safety standards, of which death by drugs is but one aspect. The 2007 Chris Benoit murder-suicide ratcheted to a new level the urgency of a full and transparent history of these events. Linda McMahon’s candidacy for high elected office offers a useful platform for further scrutiny.