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Ennis' Take
ENNIS: With Threat of Losing Major Sponsors, The UFC Needs a Shift in Mindset and Policies
By
Apr 26, 2012 - 1:45:48 PM

By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist

We've talked about this before. Just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. Dana White talked about the fact that he can't drug test the fighters in the UFC because there's just so much for him to do that he can't babysit everyone. Well, it wasn't a good argument then and it's still not. But now, with the news about Anheuser-Busch's displeasure over the conduct and comments of a few fighters coming to light (or, more specifically some advocacy groups' displeasure causing Anheuser-Busch's displeasure), it's time to go further. Dana's going to hate it, but it's time for the UFC to face the reality of becoming a mainstream entity in the 21st century United States: it's time for everyone to start acting like adults.

In case you hadn't heard, check out this article in Ad Age, a trade magazine for the advertising industry. While some of the claims made by the advocacy groups in question come across as ridiculous to rational people who also happen to be fans of the UFC, the promotion certainly hasn't done itself any favors or made many efforts to change the opinions expressed by those groups. Saying that the UFC "contributes to a culture of violence against women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people" is just silly, quite honestly. The Ultimate Fighting Championship doesn't depict violence against any group, nor do they encourage it. Statements like that just come across as hyperbolic and reek of uninformed hand-wringing.

Here's the problem, though: the actions of some UFC employees (and the inaction of those who are able to do something about them) don't do much to squash these kinds of sentiments. When fighters repeatedly make jokes on Twitter and Facebook about rape and other sensitive topics, when Rampage Jackson posts a video on YouTube that treats rape callously, when Dana White and Joe Rogan repeatedly use derogatory terms for women and homosexuals... these things become ammunition. It doesn't matter how long ago Dana White called Loretta Hunt the C-word. It doesn't matter how long ago Rampage (yes, him again) tried to get a Japanese fan to say "I'm a fag" on video, or told a reporter "Jamaican me horny." These things are documented occurrences, and they're on the Internet. They never die.

Now granted, all those things are in the past. But the fact that these kinds of things have come up in the past only to be brushed aside with so much "I can't babysit everyone" nonsense shows that the UFC has been either too ignorant or too arrogant to realize that running a sports league/promotion full of grown men consists of more than just telling them whom they're fighting and when. It's a basic thing, and when you think about it, it's mind-boggling that throughout the exponential increase in popularity of the UFC and MMA, the promotion has never (at least publicly) put together some sort of disciplinary committee to handle in-house matters. It goes along the same lines as drug testing. Dana White can be the public face of the UFC, but he can't do everything. There has to be trust within the organization that someone else can get things done.

In reality, everyone knows that if you have a group of 400-500 people, you're going to have some idiots. That's just life. Even among social circles, most of us have friends that are a little out there. Sometimes there's that guy you know who every now and then will say something that makes everyone uncomfortable. It happens. But the difference is that no one is giving that guy a megaphone or several thousand followers on Twitter. He doesn't represent a publicly-seen company that's worth... let's just say a whole lot of money. That guy couldn't cost anyone a sponsorship. So yeah, he says stupid things sometimes, but everyone just ignores him. But if that guy is a fighter for the UFC, he's got a platform and he's got people listening. And if no one is there to either rein him in or provide consequences when he messes up, that's when the trouble happens. That's when you lose multi-million dollar sponsorships and start to stink of an organization that can't police itself. No one wants a part of an organization with no control. That's what makes this problem so unbelievable. The UFC, and specifically Dana White, are notorious control freaks over all aspects of production and everything that goes into putting on fights. But when it comes to what employees of the UFC say and do in public, not only do they have no control, but they seem to shy away from even wanting it.

Let's look at this from another angle. You can bring up the NFL and Roger Goodell all you want, and you're right. No NFL player could get away with a lot of the things that UFC fighters have said and/or done. But look at just a regular guy. If you've got a Twitter account with a couple hundred followers, or even just a few, and you list your employer in your profile, how well do you think it would go over if they found you were making rape jokes? Probably not all that well. Because when people know who your employer is, you're representing that entity. If you make them look bad, that can easily cost you your job. And I can speak to that, because I've personally fired people for that very thing. It's not just some abstract idea that you can get fired for being stupid on social media. It exists, and it happens.

Here's the biggest problem: no employer can expect to be taken seriously if they expect employees to act differently than the people who pay their salaries. Dana White has to set the example. I'll admit it – there's something refreshing about having the president of an organization speak his mind. But there's also something off about having the president of an organization routinely give interviews (and sometimes even press conferences) that you can't watch in front of your kids. I respect Dana White immensely for the work he's put into building the UFC to the place it is now, and it should be noted that we've gone quite a while without seeing any real attacks where he uses any kind of derogatory terms for any particular group. But if he really wants to take the UFC to the mainstream, those kinds of things can't ever happen. And if they happen among fighters (or commentators – Joe Rogan isn't a comedian when he's not on stage – he's a representative of the UFC), they've got to be addressed publicly. Dana doesn't even have to address them himself if he doesn't want to, but there's got to be some sort of entity within the UFC that teaches fighters how to behave and hands out punishments when they don't. A hefty fine or a suspension would even be enough - making rash decisions to cut a fighter only to bring him back in a month or two isn't necessary.

What it all comes down to is this: building a professional sports league isn't easy. But it's also not unprecedented. There are plenty of examples to look at. The content of your sport may or may not be objectionable to some, but in the end, that's what sells the product if enough people like it. What can kill it, though, is negligence on the level that will lose you sponsors. Sponsors and advocates are what make sports leagues run. And if the UFC fixes this problem with a band-aid instead of surgery, the problem will still be there and could very well be their undoing.

Twitter: @shawnennis Email: ennistorch@gmail.com

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