Harley McNaught was planning to stay silent and grieve. Then he saw what Linda McMahon said about his dead son.
McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, was asked last week about the death of McNaught's son, who wrestled for the WWE as Lance Cade and who had struggled with an addiction to painkillers before being released by the company, then dying earlier this month of heart failure.
"I might have met him once," McMahon said as she insisted that the company could not be blamed for deaths of its employees outside the ring.
That response has left Harley McNaught and his son's other survivors furious.
"I've been with him on two different WWE functions where she came up to him and knew him by name," McNaught said in an interview from his office in San Antonio, where Lance died, aged 29, on Aug. 13.
"She disrespected him," McNaught said. "She disrespected my family."
The father also said he thinks McMahon and her husband, who remains at the helm of their $1.02 billion corporation, know exactly what a toll the driving pace of wrestling competition can take on individual wrestlers struggling, as his son did, to work through injuries and not be passed over for a chance to be in the spotlight.
Lance McNaught "would have cut his arm off for Vince McMahon, but it wasn't there in return," his father said. "He don't care any more than the man in the moon for them, other than as dollar signs."
McNaught's death has revived the primary question that has nagged McMahon as the Republican's campaign for the U.S. Senate roars ever closer to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in opinion polls: Has the rags-to-riches saga of Stamford-based WWE come at the expense of the health and well-being of the wrestlers? Or are the company and the candidate being unfairly asked to answer for the private behavior of other adults?
Wrestler became critic
McNaught's death also turns the light on a wrestler who had become a vigorous critic of the McMahons and the WWE, alleging in interviews in the months before he died that he had been dismissed after taking the company up on its offer to go to rehab and saying that WWE's vaunted "Wellness Policy" was a sham engineered for public relations, not the health of its employees.
The company dropped him after he went through rehab and remained clean, Lance McNaught and his father both said, treating him as expendable and an embarrassment to a company that is trying to shed a reputation for steroid and prescription abuse that it gained after a scandal and trial in the 1990s and a more recent congressional investigation.
"Vince's stance (is) they do all this because they care about the talent," the younger McNaught said in April during an interview with Kenny Bolin, a manager who also produces a wrestling podcast. "Bull----. They care about the image of the WWE and you care about the fact that Congress was having ... hearings about this. That's what this comes down to."
In a written statement, WWE vigorously defended its "Talent Wellness Program," which includes drug testing, cardiovascular testing, screening for possible head injuries, annual physicals and referrals to outside consultants as needed.
"The well being of our performers is our number one concern, without whom, WWE would not exist," the statement read. "Specifically, our current Talent Wellness Policy is at least as good or commensurate with any others of its kind. As for the assertion that the company was embarrassed because Lance went to rehab (which WWE encouraged and paid for), that is ridiculous. Other WWE performers have successfully completed rehab and are currently on the roster. We are proud that we can offer this assistance, and of our performers who have completed these programs."
The company continually checked on McNaught's health, spokesman Robert Zimmerman said, including after his release from WWE. McNaught was released from his first WWE contract in 2008, then brought back in September 2009. He asked to be admitted in January 2010 and successfully completed rehab, the company contends, but was released from his contract in April after a planned story line in which he would have appeared was scrapped.
Zimmerman said the company continued to reach out to McNaught after his release.
'Change in my body'
In his interview with Bolin, the younger McNaught, who as Lance Cade was a WWE star, also alleged that high-profile company officials, including Jim Ross, the WWE ring announcer, and John Laurinaitis, the head of the company's talent relations division, were aware that he had used steroids to bulk himself up from January through March 2003, when McNaught was trying to break through as a performer with Ohio Valley Wrestling, which at the time was part of WWE's developmental program.
"It was right in front of the (announcer's) desk at the (Louisville, Ky.) Davis Arena," he said, referring to a conversation with unnamed other wrestlers that year. "And our little talk was, 'Lance, you're going to have to make the decision if you want to change your body, if you know what I mean, or keep going through this.' And that's when I made the decision, and in six weeks - go look at the ... tapes. ... From January of '03, fast forward to March of '03 and look at the change in my body."
McNaught went on to say he had later encountered Ross and Laurinaitis, the latter of whom had previously questioned his performances, but now complimented him. Ross, he said, told him: "As you're getting older, your body is starting to come around."
"I understood what that comment meant," McNaught said. He added: "So, two months later, all of sudden, 'Lance knows how to work,' and now I'm ready for the big time. Let's cut the bull----."
The WWE statement did not respond specifically to McNaught's claims about Laurinaitis and Ross, but noted that the wellness policy includes both testing and sanctions for positive drug tests, and that McNaught has said publicly, including in an interview with Bolin, that Ross told wrestlers in the developmental program not to take steroids.
Still, the company has been dogged by criticism that it should be doing more to prevent the wrestlers - who are independent contractors, not employees, of the company and do not receive health insurance benefits - from self-medicating, as McNaught's family says he did, to cope with pain.
Harley McNaught said his son had been injured on the job, requiring surgery on a shoulder last year and receiving a prescription for a knee injury in 2004. The younger McNaught worked through pain as much as he could, his father said, because he and other wrestlers were wary of taking time off to heal, believing that they would be quickly passed over in favor of other talent, and would have to begin the long, slow climb of their careers all over again.
"It hurt me to see him wrestling in pain," the elder McNaught said, "but you talk to any one of them, once you try to climb the ladder and get a spot, you shut it down (due to an injury) and you lose your spot and go right back down to the bottom. So it's, 'Here, take a few painkillers, make the world go away.' "
After injuries, use of painkillers "just came too easy to Lance because it took the pain away," the elder McNaught said, adding that the use of the painkillers made his son "like he was in la-la land; he would just kind of pass out."
What rankled more, for both the younger McNaught and his father, was the notion that he had done the right thing in seeking out rehab to overcome his addiction, continued to pass subsequent drug tests - and yet been released by the WWE nevertheless.
Since his return from rehab, the father said, "they tested him from the toe to the top of his head." He passed those tests, only to be released anyway, he said.
"After he gets out of rehab, what is it now?" McNaught said. "He embarrassed you? Is that what it is? Don't tell me that you care about these people."
The younger McNaught, in interviews with Bolin and with the wrestling newsletter PWInsider.com, expressed similar frustration.
"Everybody already knows that if you get hurt, you know, work through it because you'll lose your spot," he told PWInsider. " ... You know, guys don't set out to do this, they don't set out to be problem-makers, most of them at least. You know, and I don't want to be a part of a company that says one thing and then does another, especially at that level with, you know, the media attention that this has gotten since Eddie and Chris has passed away. That's garbage to me."
"Eddie and Chris" were Eddie Fatu, also known as "Umaga," and Chris Klucsarits, who wrestled as "Chris Kanyon." Both had died of prescription drug overdoses, at ages 35 and 40, respectively, within months of McNaught's interview, conducted on April 5.
Months before his death, Fatu had been released from his WWE contract after he violated the company's wellness program for a second time, then refused an order to attend rehab, according to the WWE.
"No talent has ever been discouraged to speak up," the statement said.
Meanwhile, a McMahon campaign spokesman said it "certainly wasn't Linda's intent to diminish any additional interaction she may have had" with McNaught.
"WWE has nearly 600 employees and about 140 performers, and I think it's understandable that Linda may not recollect every interaction she's had, particularly given the fact that she's personally met with thousands of voters since resigning her position at WWE in September," said spokesman Ed Patru. "Linda's a very kind and sympathetic person, but she is human."
In his interview with Bolin - which can be heard at www.whosslammingwho.podomatic.com - broken up into multiple segments, McNaught gossips, jokes and reminisces about the struggles of a young would-be wrestler hoping to make the big-time - and learning he'll have to alter his body to do so.
McNaught says, as he and Bolin speculate about whether some high-profile wrestlers are using steroids, "We're not dumb. We know who's using and who's not.
"It comes down to, 'Well, do you like your income, do you the like the fact' - hey, I have two daughters. Do I want to keep giving them a better life and shut my mouth, or say something? 'Cause if you say something, your --- is gone."
Back in Texas, Harley McNaught didn't hesitate when asked if he now regrets his son's decision to go into professional wrestling.
"No, I don't," he said, "because that was his dream from childhood. He loved the business."