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An illustration of a metal folding chair hitting a human skull that shows a brain inside. Tyson Whiting

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Chair shots to the head in wrestling are an unnecessary risk with permanent consequences

AEW’s mission is to support its wrestlers. Allowing unprotected chair shots flies in the face of that.

Everyone knew something had gone wrong the moment Cody Rhodes crumpled to the mat. Even more so when they saw the blood.

The 34-year-old All Elite Wrestling (AEW) star was exhausted, having just battled underdog Darby Allin to a time-limit draw during AEW’s Fyter Fest when fellow wrestler Shawn Spears suddenly climbed in the ring, metal chair in hand.

Rhodes had less than a second to react as Spears swung for the fences. The steel made a sickening thud against his skull, busting open the back of his head and knocking him to the mat. Though he managed to walk away without a concussion, the injury left him with 12 staples in his head and served as a sobering reminder of why chair shots, planned or not, are an unnecessary risk in a sport where head injuries are all too common.

AEW has been disrupting professional wrestling since its inception by mixing old-school concepts with new-school sensibilities, but Rhodes’ injury and the questions surrounding it went beyond anything the company had planned for. Owner Tony Khan acted quickly following the Fyter Fest chair shot to address safety concerns, addressing it internally before speaking to the press. “You could build the safest airplane in the world, and if there’s pilot error, there’s pilot error,” Khan said in a press conference. “That was not good.”

Khan didn’t expand on whether the promotion would continue allowing chair shots or other dangerous maneuvers, but a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation tells SB Nation that AEW will not use unprotected chair shots moving forward.

“I understand there were discussions about trying to do it safely without causing brain trauma, but I think the lesson from this is that there’s always a chance for human error,” says Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “You have to look at the risk-reward for a chair shot to the head.”

Nowinski retired from wrestling in 2003 with post-concussion syndrome, which eventually led him to develop the foundation with neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu. Nowinski advises athletes on the risks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and holds seminars for current WWE superstars on the importance of being safe in the ring.

“My life is now focused on protecting brains and trying to fix ones that have already been damaged,” Nowinski says.

He can’t point to a specific moment that ended his wrestling career but remembers when he decided enough was enough after a series of undiagnosed concussions took a significant toll on his body and mind. One night, while still asleep, Nowinski stood on his bed and jumped off, crashing through a nightstand. He later learned it was a sign of REM behavior disorder, which typically comes with traumatic brain injury.

“That’s what it took to scare me straight and actually be honest about how I felt,” he says. “All this work with Concussion Legacy Foundation started because I wish I’d had known that I should have rested my concussion each time I got one. And I’d probably still be working.”

Rooted in the rise of Texas death match wrestling in the 1950s, chair shots were popular in matches that also utilized tables, barbed wire and trash cans as weapons. Matches typically took place in high school gymnasiums or makeshift arenas, venues that made it believable for a wrestler to take a chair from a fan and using it as a weapon.

Wrestlers continued to use chairs in the ring for decades, almost exclusively as foreign objects or to batter an opponent by striking them across the flat of the back. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that chair shots changed with the rise of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and WWE’s “Attitude Era,” which sought to pull the sport from its spandex-clad cast of cartoon characters and make it more visceral. This increased the risk, danger and violence of the product in a battle of one-upmanship to win over an audience with unquenchable blood lust. The chair shot was swept up in this movement, re-imagined as blows to the head — often unprotected.

This was the status quo until 2007 when WWE superstar Chris Benoit murdered his family before killing himself in their Atlanta home. People searched for explanations in the wake of the tragedy, as Benoit’s close friends insisted the heinous crime seemed out of character. A postmortem study showed that the 40-year-old had the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. To this day, Benoit’s father claims his actions were the result of brain injuries his son sustained while wrestling. One of the most-used clips of Benoit adopted by the 24-hour news cycle as his story unfolded was of him being hit in the head with a chair.

This was around the same time the sporting world was learning about CTE. Studied since the 1920s, it wasn’t until 2005 when Dr. Bennet Omalu published his landmark study, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player”, that people started paying closer attention to the damaging long-term effects of head injuries in sports. In the wake of Benoit’s death, WWE mandated that its talent would never take an unprotected chair shot again, meaning wrestlers on the receiving end would have to cushion the blow with their hands. This was expanded in 2010 to exclude all chair shots to the head, period, at a time when the NFL was under scrutiny over concussion protocol. It was part of a company-wide shift to “talent wellness” — a paradigm shift for the sport, but one that was widely embraced by fans.

But the mixed social media reaction following the Fyter Fest chair shot suggests not all fans want wrestling to evolve. Many seemed to relish a return to the hardcore violence which has been absent from mainstream wrestling for years while others insisted the past should be left in the past.

“It’s simple. If you want to see that kind of violence, then watch boxing or MMA,” Nowinski says. “If you want to see some of the best performers on the planet live for decades then you should support them performing safely. You should respect them enough to let them perform safely.”

Part of the negative reaction towards AEW allowing chair shots stems from how it contrasts with the company’s implied mission. One of the biggest differentiators between AEW and WWE is how wrestlers are treated. For decades, WWE owner Vince McMahon has had his wrestlers operate as independent contractors. The problem with that is being responsible for their own healthcare has incentivized performers to hide injuries or ignore warning signs for fear of having their contract terminated. Former WWE superstar CM Punk explained in 2014 how he felt he would be “punished” by the company if he took time off to recover from a concussion.

AEW, on the other hand, has made some of its wrestlers full-time employees with benefits. An unheard-of approach in an industry that too often leaves talent in the cold when their spotlight dims. That’s what made the Fyter Fest chair shot feel so out of place. It’s impossible to reconcile the concept that performers should have secure futures while putting them at higher risk for permanent brain damage through the demands of the job.

Chair shots aren’t the only source of concussions in wrestling — far from it — but they are the most easily altered move in the industry that can be phased out with relative ease. With AEW pushing the envelope on violence, there’s pressure for WWE to raise the stakes in response. However, the company maintains its position outlawing “deliberate and direct shots to the head.” On top of that, WWE began mandatory ImPACT concussion testing in 2008, subjecting performers to yearly baseline testing of brain function, memory, processing speed and reaction time. Referees are trained to identify injuries that occur during a match (including concussions) and are given the power to stop a match to ensure no further injury occurs.

The issue of unprotected chair shots and the risk of CTE in wrestling isn’t just a WWE or AEW problem — it’s an industry problem. Away from the grand storylines and athletic feats lies a grassroots concern as wrestlers young and old across America are risking their lives to be noticed or remain famous. When a crowd is invested in a performer, they can build the kind of cult following needed to get booked in larger shows, and eventually, if they’re lucky enough, into a major promotion. The issue is that many young wrestlers see a need to risk their bodies and their futures by taking risks to get noticed.

Nowinski’s advice for young wrestlers turning to dangerous maneuvers for attention is to keep in mind that the fans who like violent wrestling aren’t the majority.

“If your goal is to make it to WWE ... show them you can wrestle the way they expect you to wrestle in WWE,” he says. “The reality is that if you take too many risks there’s a good chance you’ll flame out before you get where you’re trying to go.”

The world of professional wrestling is a fractured series of minor promotions and independent booking scenes feeding into the WWE monolith. As AEW attempts to compete for the same audience, there is an imperative for both organizations to band together and denounce chair shots to the head and other risky maneuvers that can directly be traced to future cases of CTE.

The same night Cody Rhodes took the unprotected chair shot, Jon Moxley and Joey Janela wrestled an unsanctioned hardcore match using barbed wire, thumbtacks, tables and ladders. By the end, both performers were a bloody mess — and yet it was still safer than being hit in the head with a chair. There’s room for violence in wrestling. There’s room to tell a story. There is no longer room for performers to shorten their lives for the sake of applause.