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Not ready to rumble

Is professional wrestling pile-driving kids' minds?

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Earl Rose has been seething for the past 10 months at the immaculately sterile Western Probation Detention Center, just outside Butler, Ga. He shakes his massive head, his jaw tightens and the dark brown skin that stretches across it ripples. He has a broad brow, big nostrils, large, almond-shaped eyes and a gold-capped front tooth that gleams like a bridle bit when he talks. Rose stutters, and the bumping sound of his words becomes worse as he becomes angry and frustrated.

"I was on the national news. People everywhere are saying I'm a ba-ba-baby-killer," he says, slinging his head back and to the side, his eyes wide. "But nobody ever came to talk to me."

He means no news reporters ever talked to him, although The Macon Telegraph, The Atlanta Constitution and countless other papers and news programs across the country ran stories about what happened. Even Queen Latifah, he says, called his mother in hopes of getting him on her show to talk about wrestling programs and kids. But nobody has talked to him about it.

And no one is saying he beat 15-month-old Ramone Francois King to death. Newspaper stories and police reports state the baby was accidentally killed last fall by a 4-year-old boy. Although Rose, 24, admits he left the children alone that night for about 10 minutes, he believes outside forces inspired the 4-year-old to do what he did: wrestling, specifically the World Wrestling Federation's "SummerSlam 1999: Highway to Hell" program.

That may sound like passing the buck, but Rose's claim isn't entirely without merit. As professional wrestling's popularity has grown, so has concern that children are watching and emulating what they see.

Among those who share that concern is Robert H. Durant, a psychologist at Wake Forest University, who later this summer will publish the results of the first academic study on the effects of televised wrestling on the kids who watch it. Durant became interested in the connection when one of the schools for which he designed anti-violence programs reported a surge in violent behavior on Tuesdays. The boys at Philo Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C., were particularly rowdy on Tuesdays. Kids were actually getting hurt. The boys not only wrestled each other but sometimes body-slammed girls and were calling them "bitches" and "ho's.

After a few weeks of observation, it became clear to Durant that the problem was Monday night wrestling shows, specifically the World Championship Wrestling's "Monday Night Nitro" and the WWF's "Raw Is War." Durant decided it was a subject ripe for exploration. He surveyed more than 2,000 high school students on how much wrestling they watched and their attitudes toward it.

He found that the harm wrestling programs do stretches well-beyond bruises and broken arms. The programs infect young brains with volatile ideas, ideas made more volatile by the fact that kids, many of whom are too young to be watching the programs, are regularly watching them, as was the case when Rose allowed the children in his care to watch the WWF's "SummerSlam 1999."

According to a preliminary analysis of the data Durant gathered, more ninth graders (52 percent) watch wrestling than do 12th graders (45 percent). He found that those who watch wrestling are more likely to use alcohol, more likely to "binge" drink, more likely to use marijuana, cocaine, heroin, speed and Ritalin without a prescription, and more likely to "huff" the fumes of glue and other inhalants.

Durant admits it's difficult to pin down a cause-and-effect relationship between wrestling and substance abuse. But the strongest connection he drew wasn't related to "victimless" crimes. What jumped out at Durant was that kids, who said they watched wrestling also said they frequently carried guns, knives or other weapons. More of them also admitted carrying weapons to school and were more likely to be involved in fights.

To prepare for his study, Durant watched a year's worth of videotaped wrestling programs produced by both the WWF and the WCW. For years, Durant had been doing seminars and workshops for schools warning parents about dangerous messages in the media. When he started watching wrestling, he was appalled by what he saw.

"People on these shows regularly refer to women as 'bitches,' 'sluts,' and "ho's," says Durant. "There's one wrestler with this entourage of women who've obviously had breast implants and are very scantily clad. He calls them his 'ho-train.'"

Durant doesn't recall who the wrestler is. But when Rose hears about the 'ho train, he nods his head with familiarity and moves his arms like a locomotive, chug-chugging happily and saying "oh, yeah."

At the time of Ramone King's death, Rose was already in violation of probation in connection to a September 1998 cocaine possession charge. He had failed to meet with his probation officer or attend court-ordered drug and alcohol counseling. He had also missed a payment on a $1,700 fine, but until the night of Sept. 9, 1999, the law hadn't caught up with him.

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