Vince McMahon's biggest WWE controversies, from steroids case to Owen Hart's death

WWE chairman and chief executive is currently being investigated for alleged misconduct with a female employee

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WWE’s Vince McMahon is in the news after it was announced that he would be stepping down as chief executive and chairman during an investigation into alleged misconduct. In the interim, his daughter Stephanie will take over.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the WWE is investigating an alleged $3 million payment from McMahon, 76, to a departing female employee, following a consensual affair. It was also looking into John Laurinaitis, the head of talent relations.

McMahon has said he would co-operate with the investigation and “accept the findings … whatever they are”.

The billionaire has long been the leader and most recognisable face at WWE for decades, after purchasing the World Wrestling Federation, as it was then known, from his father in 1982.

However, in his four decades running the company, it hasn't always been smooth sailing as there have been a few controversies along the way. Here, we take a look at some of the biggest.

The steroid trial (1994)

The link between steroids and professional wrestling reached a turning point in the early 1990s, when McMahon was indicted by the US Department of Justice on illegal activity relating to anabolic steroids. It was thought that he not only actively encouraged use for wrestlers, but that he had provided access to them too.

The charges against McMahon could have led to up to 11 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. During an 18-day trial in 1994, in which wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and Rick Rude testified, McMahon was acquitted by a jury in the federal district court, of charges that he conspired to distribute steroids to wrestlers under his employment.

However, the case left a dark mark on the wrestling industry, and over the years, with many former wrestlers having died young, steroid abuse is often viewed as a major culprit.

Owen Hart’s death (1999)

One of the biggest tragedies to ever happen to the WWE was when wrestler Owen Hart died during a live pay-per-view event in 1999. Dressed as his character the Blue Blazer, he was supposed to descend from the arena rafters into the ring prior to his match. However, as he was attempting the stunt, a configuration error led to his harness disengaging early and Hart falling more than 21-metres into the ring.

While the accident wasn’t viewed on live TV (a pre-recorded video vignette was being shown), when the broadcast returned, commentators Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler were left to inform viewers of what had happened. However, later in the show, it was announced that Hart had died from his injuries. Rather than cancel the show, after some delay, McMahon decided to continue. Afterwards, there was strong criticism for allowing the stunt to happen in the first place and for going forward with the live event.

“After he lost his fight for life, they just scooped him up and ordered the next match out. Where's the humanity? Would he have wanted the show to go on? Absolutely not,” said Hart’s widow Martha in an interview with the Calgary Sun in 2000.

Chris Benoit tribute show (2007)

When wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife Nancy and son Daniel were found dead in their home, McMahon cancelled a three-hour-live episode of Raw and instead replaced it with a rushed tribute show. During the broadcast, fellow wrestlers discussed Benoit’s life and career and a highlight showcase of Benoit’s past matches was screened.

However, it was around the last hour that reports began to surface that it was possibly a murder-suicide by Benoit. The next day, after more details emerged, McMahon was forced to confront the backlash, giving an emotional but brief statement. Benoit has never been mentioned on WWE programming again.

WWE's workers’ rights (2019)

Stand-up comedian and political commentator John Oliver, the host of HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, took a shot at the WWE's refusal to provide its wrestlers with health insurance or workers' compensation benefits in 2019. The host claimed McMahon could get away with not providing these benefits because the wrestlers were independent contractors, and not technically employees of the WWE.

"When you take independent contractors working in a monopolised industry largely free from meaningful oversight who are able to be fired at any time, you wind up with huge potential for unsafe conduct," Oliver said. He also claimed the WWE was worse than the NFL when it came to caring about the health and safety of its athletes, calling the promotion "morally subterranean".

The WWE responded by telling Deadline: "Prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers refuting every point in his one-sided presentation... [Oliver] simply ignored the facts. The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, long-standing Talent Wellness programme." However, it was never made public what those points were.

Updated: June 19, 2022, 12:53 PM