Details about the specifics of Bryan's case will no doubt emerge in the coming weeks. Sidelined due to an undisclosed injury in the weeks following Wrestlemania 31, Bryan's story would seem to become one of bewilderment to some, reports followed suggesting that Bryan had been given the full bill of health by an external doctor, and only WWE doctor Joe Maroon was the reason he wasn't being cleared to compete.
It's the back story here that's important to the story. We're just a couple of days away from the UK Cinematic release of the film "Concussion" - starring Will Smith as Nigerian doctor Bennett Omalu. Omalu was, in some ways, the first professional to discover what is now known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – CTE for short – in professional footballers in the United States. Maroon, while minor, also features in the story.
His role is as one of the members of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) formed in 1994 by the NFL, was to investigate whether there was a link between brain injury and professional football. While the NFL side of the story is documented far better than I ever could in books: "Concussion" by Jeanne Marie Laskas and "League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth", Maroon was part of a team that for a long time denied the links between the two and even disseminated information and directly contradicting the idea.
In 1995, the WWF ran an angle on Monday Night Raw involving the storyline collapse of Shawn Michaels. While it would be hard to deny the execution of the angle, or it's effectiveness, the eventual storyline behind it would baffle you, somewhat. It was presented that Michaels was suffering with "Post concussion syndrome" following the very real attack by a group of military in Syracuse the month prior. The storyline over the coming month or so was whether Michaels would be forced to retire, and WWE even aired segments on Raw interviewing Dr Joseph Unger, who offered storyline opinion on the risks Michaels faces (don't worry, Unger was a regular viewer of Raw!).
In the end, of course, it was a storyline. In a mock press conference on the 8th January Raw, Michaels preposterously offered that doctors had advised him never to compete again, but that he was going against this advice and would be inserting himself into the Rumble match. As if this notion wasn't ridiculous enough already, the phony press in attendance would regale that line with howls of applause. The whole thing (barring the Syracuse bit) of course, was a story, but it illustrated two very important things about the WWE. 1) they were very aware of, at least, the idea of the dangers of head injuries and 2) it illustrated how little they really cared.
I'd highly recommend reading Bob Holly's book "The Hardcore Truth" (you can't say you haven't got your book recommendations worth out of this piece). In amongst detailing his career within the WWE, Holly talks about how the company treated injuries in his time there, but also how they treated head injuries. He tells a story of once being so out of it after a match he couldn't remember his way back to the locker room. He would wrestle again later in the evening.
One of the WWE's biggest revenue streams in 2016 is the WWE Network which, amongst other things, offers people the chance to view shows from their back catelogue – either stuff directly produced by them or tape libraries they have bought from now defunct promotions. If you take a look at any ECW show from 1994 onwards or any WWF show from probably 1998 onwards you will see a switch to a more violent style than fans were used to. In amongst this violence you probably won't have to wait too long to see an unprotected steel chair shot to the head.
Chair shots were preferred by talents for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were a very believable weapon to have around. Secondly, they were visually very impressive when you swung them and, perhaps most importantly, when rattled off the head of an opponent they made the sound like a gun shot. To people who didn't know better about head trauma, these unprotected chair shots to the head were a great way of adding to a match. Unfortunately, while some certainly understood the *idea* of the risks they were taking (and there's plenty to suggest these people weren't the wrestlers themselves) it would take many years before the true long term damage of these are being felt.
In his retirement speech, Daniel Bryan mentioned suffering three concussions in his first six months as a pro wrestler. It was about as honest as Bryan could be without directly implicating the company. Bryan, like many may have embodied what may become known as the last generation that not only had plausible deniability for not knowing any better, but perhaps the last that don’t know that some matches just aren’t worth fighting.
Triple H, the Vince McMahon in waiting, was fabled as a man who put himself through the pain barrier for the cause. After blowing his quadracep in a match in 2000 involving Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, Triple H finished the match before seeking help. Over a decade later, Triple H, now cast in the role as on air authority figure came out and ordered the stoppage of a match between Bryan and Randy Orton on Raw.
Bryan suffered a “stinger” during the match, not being able to stand up following a dropkick. Bryan detailed in subsequent interviews how he and Triple H had a backstage argument following the match, Bryan wanted the match to continue. WWE may have slowly caught up with the times, but it may take them a while yet to get their talent on the same wavelength.
Worrying, more, is that while the company may finally be catching up with the times, is what damage may already be done. Since Monday, many people have offered the following question: “How would the rest of the WWE roster get on, if they were subjected to the same tests Bryan took?” It’s a good question, and one that the WWE may prefer not to find the answer about. Much like the steroid issues 20 years ago, there’s certainly a sense WWE’s effort to “protect” their talent lies more for the sake of PR than anything else.
Bubba Ray Dudley, a full time member of the roster, has a documented history of concussions. So does Tommy Dreamer, who made a few appearances at the end of 2015 for them too. If the 1990s was the nadir when it came to a generation of talent putting their bodies – and their brains – on the line, we’re now entering the stage where those chickens may begin to come home to roost.
The danger may not be over, either. For all of the research done in football about concussive hits, there is another line of research surrounding the accumulation of "sub concussive" hits, those that individually may not seem so significant but when piled up together could have significant consequences. And if there's one sport that might replicate the brain rattling collisions that happen in football... it might be wrestling.
What the future holds nobody quite knows. Bryan, at least, represents a very obtuse effort on the WWE’s part to try and make a change, to try and make things right. Future generations will be smarter for the developments in the last few years, but what can only concern everyone is what damage may already have been done.