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Wrestling sinks to a new low

American culture reached a new low recently when a wrestler was killed in an accident during a live televised event -- and the event continued.

Owen Hart, 34, plunged more than 50 feet to the mat, hit his head on the turnbuckle of the ring, raised his head and arms briefly, collapsed and died.Some of the better than 16,000 in attendance and 1 million watching on television thought it was the best performance ever. And so once the paramedics got Hart out of the ring, the show went on.

The man died, but the event continued, because, the promoter said, "He would have wanted it that way."

The fact that the show went on is sick enough. The fact that we have sunk so low in our standards of entertainment is even sicker. The fact that wrestling is the fastest-growing segment on television while voter participation is falling ought to make you worry about the democracy.

The popularity of wrestling is symptomatic of the decline in American culture. This televised wrestling spectacle, now on for up to 15 hours per week, degrades women, glorifies violence and vulgar language, and now -- makes deadly stunts part of the act.

Hart was sacrificed in the name of television ratings, his family says. Wrestling audiences greet the disturbed antics of professional wrestling with all the tact of a crowd gathered around a man upon the ledge of a window in a tall building. They might not yell "Jump," but they are hoping for a fall.

The rise in wrestling's television ratings parallels its descent into the gutter of American culture. Professional wrestling has always been fake. It has always been amateur theatrics about good guys and bad guys. In recent years, however, it has ramped up the sex and violence. Not surprisingly, an audience of young men has followed.

Tune in on Monday nights on cable and the bad guys whose scantily clad lady friends distract good guy wrestlers with suggestive poses treat you to hours of crotch-grabbing and bird-flipping.

They kick. They scratch. They draw blood. And the referees pretend to be looking at something else. The crowd screams for the heads of the bad guys and they usually seem to get their just reward.

You can argue that it always has been this way with professional wrestling, but the volume of vulgarity has been turned up.

Wrestling organizers claim to have traded violence for intricate story lines in the past couple of years. Yet they still need something new to keep audiences interested, and so Owen Hart was to fly into the ring at a dramatic moment to save the day.

Hitched to a cable, he began his descent from some 90 feet above the ring. A little over halfway down he came unhitched and fell to his death.

Hart came from a family of 12 professional wrestlers or people associated with wrestling. He was described as a fervent family man who was looking forward to retirement. He once told a magazine that he did not like wrestling and only did it because of the pressure that came with his family name. His brother said he really did not want to do the stunt and is not a stunt man.

He did it for the ratings, and now he's dead.

In the days that followed, emotions poured out for Hart and his family. One could not help but be cynical and wonder if they all felt as if this was only the latest episode in the soap opera: the harder they cry, the more likely Owen will show up next Monday in a new costume.

More than 40 million people watch this stuff each week. More than 70 percent of them are over the age of 18. The wrestling industry is a $1.1 billion-a-year business.

This is a business that uses the phrase "Suck It" more than 100 times per show.

This is a business that sells giant foam hands with the middle finger upraised to kids in the live audience.

This is a business with a character dressed like a pimp who brings his "ho's" with him into the ring.

This is a culture that will not stuff $5 in an envelope for public broadcasting, but thinks nothing of paying $34.95 for the "Over the Edge" World Wrestling Federation event on pay-per-view television.

This is an industry that sacrificed a man's life for a little entertainment shock value.

This is programming that will be on the air tomorrow night. It's up to you to decide whether to watch.

Tim Gallagher is editor of the Ventura County (Calif.) Star. His e-mail address is gallagher@staronline.com