Wrestling Reality Check: Steroid Smackdown

"Fair warning."

That's how a spokeswoman for the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. described Thursday night's announcement that 10 wrestlers were suspended for drug violations and the WWE's subsequent decision to alter the league testing policy so that as of November, any "talent" who fails a drug test will be publicly identified.

"We've alerted our talent, basically, you've got fair warning," Jennifer McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the WWE, told ABC News. "We believe that publicly announcing the names of performers moving forward is going to act as a deterrent."

McIntosh confirmed that the suspensions, which could last between 30 and 60 days, grew out of cooperative work with the Albany County, Fla., district attorney's office, which has been investigating Florida-based Signature Pharmacy in connection with the fraudulent online prescriptions of steroids and other drugs. The NFL and NBA have also been working with the same prosecutors, McIntosh said. Additional WWE suspensions may follow.

McIntosh would not explicitly tie the punishments and policy change to the high-profile murder-suicide involving Chris Benoit in June, but scrutiny of the rules and regulations of pro wrestling has intensified in the months since the bodies of Benoit, his wife and son were discovered in his Georgia home.

The backlash against pro wrestling has been so great that at the end of September, a congressional subcommittee will hold hearings on the topic. An aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee told ABC News that Congress has requested documents from the WWE and two other major professional wrestling organizations Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance.

As of today, the WWE had supplied Congress with some of the requested documents, while the TNA and NWA had not yet produced the information for the commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee that will hold the hearing. The hearing was called, according to the congressional aide, to take a deeper look at the leagues' drug policies, as well as the enforcement of those policies.

"The extremely high death rate for young men in this sport is pretty shocking," the aide said. "Chris Benoit's death and the whole scenario alerted people that more action could need to be taken."

Rep. Cliff, Stearns, R-Fla., the ranking member of the House subcommittee that will hold the hearing, has come out on the topic in the past, citing the deaths of 89 professional wrestlers between 1985 and 2006 who died before the age of 50.

"Of course, not all of these deaths can be attributed to steroid use," Stearns said. "However, this abnormally high number of deaths of young, fit athletes should raise congressional alarms."

The WWE, citing its previous steroids policy, will not identify the suspended wrestlers. Thursday, Sports Illustrated identified 12 wrestlers who have been tied to the Florida pharmacy under investigation by Albany County, N.Y., District Attorney David Soares.

The reporters who wrote the story had gained permission to accompany federal and state drug enforcement agents when they raided the Orlando, Fla., pharmacy compound in February. Four people were arrested and six doctors were indicted on online prescription drug charges.

It's not clear whether the wrestlers named by the magazine are the same as those suspended, but the New York Daily News reported nine of the same names as clients of Signature Pharmacies.

Among the names tied to the alleged fraudulent drug prescriptions by both publications are Randy Orton, Adam "Edge" Copeland and Ken "Mr. Kennedy" Anderson. Also listed is Benoit, who was found to have elevated levels of the anabolic steroid testosterone in his bloodstream when he died, and Brian "Crush" Adams, who was found dead at home of unknown causes Aug. 13. Eddie Guerrero, another recently deceased star and close friend of Benoit, has also been tied to the online pharmacy.

The current WWE substance abuse "wellness" policy was introduced in February 2006, just months after Guerrero's death. The results of an initial "baseline" test of every wrestler did not result in punishment, under the policy. After that, any wrestler who fails a test for the first time gets hit with a 30-day suspension; a second failed test results in a 60-day suspension and a third positive test can result in termination.

David Black, the president of the Nashville, Tenn., laboratory that handles WWE's testing, told The New York Times that under the wellness program, wrestlers who have damaged their bodies because of steroids may receive therapeutic exemptions to use steroids to replace testosterone levels.

Wade Keller, founder of PWTorch.com, a professional wrestling Web site, said the WWE's decision to start publicly naming wrestlers who fail drug tests was a significant and much-needed step toward improved transparency.

"The decision to suspend 10 wrestlers or more doesn't solve everything, but it is the most bold step that Vince McMahon has taken and it shows that he is not playing [public relations] games or is at least getting serious," Keller told ABC News, adding that he thinks the policy change will help curb steroid usage. "There's the public shame factor of being the wrestler who's failed tests repeatedly."

McMahon, the WWE's operational face, was acquitted in 1994 of conspiracy charges tied to steroid distribution.

Keller said that already, it's clear that some wrestlers are starting to lose bulk, a trend he expects to continue as long as the spotlight remains trained on the entertainment-sport hybrid. He also said that because the WWE is not identifying the wrestlers, fans will be watching very closely for wrestlers who unexpectedly miss matches.

For wrestlers, the "cocktail of choice," Keller said, is a combination of human growth hormone, which the WWE does not test for, and smaller dosages of testosterone and insulin — a mixture that allows wrestlers to continue to stay big while not failing the league's drug tests.

From his perspective, pro wrestling needs to move away from the massive superhero builds associated with the sport to smaller, but equally athletic frames. It's an evolution, however, that Keller said is unlikely under McMahon's watch. "Doing that goes against the DNA of Vince McMahon, who loves the bodybuilding physique and always has."