On June 5, 2018, a Cook County jury decided in favor of former WWE pro wrestling champion CM Punk (aka Phil Brooks) and wrestler and Podcast host Colt Cabana (aka Scott Colton) after a lengthy trial in a defamation suit brought by a WWE physician, Dr. Chris Amann. The verdict was spot on correct.
I have to confess that I have been a pro wrestling fan for some 50 years after discovering the sport by flipping through TV channels when I was five. I was immediately hooked and insisted that my Dad take me to countless live shows over the years. Being Parent of the Year that I am, I passed on the same affliction to my sons who follow pro wrestling closely to this day. So when I learned that Punk (whom I don’t know personally but think is the very best wrestling performer I have ever seen) and Cabana (who is a multi-talented performer both in and out of the ring) were defendants in a defamation suit, I had to watch as much of the trial as I could.
The gist of the doctor’s suit was that Punk made some disparaging remarks in the Podcast about the physicians associated with the WWE and their seeming indifference in medical issues that might be and often are quite serious. Newsflash for folks who believe that pro wrestling is “fake”: it is a grueling and dangerous sport that leaves a significant percentage of participants unable to finish their careers and/or disabled in later life. As a result of those remarks, Dr. Amann claimed, wrestling fans taunted him with derogatory chants at WWE events and posted unfavorable Tweets and e-mails about him.
Defamation cases are tough to win under normal circumstances. A lot tougher, I believe, when they arise within the unique world that is pro wrestling. The WWE is “sports entertainment” according to its founder Vince McMahon. He coined the phrase the “willing suspension of disbelief” arguing that pro wrestling is more fun when the audience—instead of criticizing or second-guessing—plays along. After all, isn’t it more fun to believe that a wrestler such as Mick Foley really does have multiple personalities and never knows which one he will assume each day? And the jurors were treated to a peeling back of the curtain that showed them what that world is all about—how the personalities of the performers are developed and how the matches are created and planned, and that fine line between what is “fake” and what is real. And- perhaps more importantly- the serious injuries that can result from this “fake” sport.
Therein laid the problem for Dr. Amann. Yes, he is a physician, but one who chose to be associated with the “willing suspension of disbelief” that is part and parcel of the WWE. Defamation? Well, the performers engage in “defamation” of one another in each and every show. That is one reason that so many fans follow it and enjoy it. And the referees and the managers and—yes—even the physicians—are all living inside that unique world and it is tough to calibrate what part of the WWE phenomenon would constitute defamation in the real world as opposed to the norm and custom of “trash talking” within the WWE universe. His lawyers—and fine ones they are—asked the jury for one dollar for every download of the Podcast in question—estimating that to total $4 million. The jurors took just a short time to decide that it is an awfully high burden to prove defamation in the one-of-a-kind land of the WWE.
Submitted by Richard Gonzalez, Law professor at Chicago Kent law school.