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BY WADE KELLER, MMATORCH SUPERVISING EDITOR
Dana White has to deal with an image that the athletes who work for him are blood-thirsty thugs who, if not paid to fight in this fenced cage, would be instigating fights in bars, drugging and raping women, and hanging with their drug-dealing friends. Of course, that's in no way the actual lifestyle of successful MMA fighters. But UFC, perhaps more than any other sport, has to offset that preconception.
On that basis, White understandably has little tolerance for stupidity. He must take swift public action to set an example to his fighters that this cannot be tolerated if UFC is to grow and become a mainstream, nationally accepted sport suitable for Fox broadcast network and the high-brow FX network (unlike Spike TV, when you flip past FX, you're not likely to hear a wacky voiceover guy saying, "Let's see what can stretch further before snapping - the male penis or the female breast!"). With the increased mainstream media exposure due to the Fox deal, White has to be stricter than ever.
White's challenge is going to be making sure his fighters understand what is okay and not okay to post on Twitter, and that Twitter, unlike a private email or even a relatively private Facebook "Friends Page" comment, posting on Twitter is like saying something on live televison. It's not "a joke among friends." Miguel Torres's comment - setting any judgment of its content aside for just a moment - appears to be an attempt to make his "friends on Twitter" chuckle at a ridiculous statement, and the lack of context is common when posting cryptic comments on Facebook or Twitter. I've got a dry sense of humor and I'll post cryptic comments out of context sometimes to my friends to get them to wonder "WTF? What does that mean? Where did that come from?" Usually it's a dumbshit politician saying something hypocritical or something hilarious a friend just said.
But I also use judgment and think about how a screen capture of this would look to someone who doesn't know me. How would that quote being attached to me, without an explanation, make my business partners feel, or my family, or a future employer. In other words, in this "Tosh.O" era of shock humor with almost no rules of engagement, I (maybe) get what Miguel was going for, but I don't get at all how his filter didn't stop him from doing it.
This is a problem for Dana White, though. He said he couldn't believe that Torres hadn't heard about what Forrest Griffin had said last month on Twitter ("Rape is the new missionary."). I don't see much of a difference between the two comments in terms of being grounds for firing. Both are meant to be "offensively funny" and "shockingly wry" in the same way, and both lacked context. Torres not knowing what Forrest said, and how it was essentially a final warning for UFC fighters to use better judgment on Twitter, reflects on UFC as an organization. They don't communicate to their fighters in a systematic, organized way. This week shows that's needed.
It might be time for UFC fighters to be part of a "contracted fighter email list" in which they are updated on Code of Conduct issues, or anything that would be pertinent to their UFC employment. When something like Griffin's comment becomes an issue, instead of assuming every contracted fighter in every part of the world is plugged into every daily UFC-related controversy, UFC should systematically make sure they know, and in the case of Griffin's comment, have all fighters acknowledge by return email that they are aware that the next comment that shows that type of bad judgment will result in a firing.
The fact that Forrest got a pass and Torres didn't doesn't set well with me. Torres, not having heard of the Forrest situation, was in the exact same position as Forrest - using bad judgment on Twitter. Just because one came a month before the other doesn't mean Torres should be fired while Forrest gets "a good talking to." If this was strike three for Torres and strike one for Forrest, that'd make sense, but I don't sense that's the case here.
Plus, what about Brock Lesnar saying to a reporter shortly ater arriving in UFC: "I don't like gays. Write that down in your little notebook. I don't like gays." He apologized a month later: "I'm sorry for my statement. I'm sorry for anybody's feelings I hurt." That didn't exactly clear up whether he still doesn't like "gays"; it only made clear he's sorry he said it and he's sorry some feelings were hurt (due to, perhaps, his still deeply held dislike of "gays").
Then there's this week's Rashad Evans comment, using the horrid scandal at Penn State involving the multiple allegations of rape of children by an assistant coach as a way to promote his fight. He said: "I guarantee you're going to be the first one to take a shot because I'm going to put those hands on you worse than that dude did them other kids at Penn State."
White said he heard Rashad's explanation and he's okay with it. That's not good enough for ESPN's Jim Rome, who lambasted Evans for that lapse in judgment today. UFC doesn't need this type of publicity, not at this stage of it's mainstream acceptance. What explanations did Evans and Griffin provide to White that made it okay, and how did those differ from the explanation Torres gave?
What about Michael Bisping and Quinton Jackson? They have a history of slinging gay slurs at opponents. And that's not an exhaustive list. In 2009 Dana White, in a video rant, referred to Loretta Hunt of Sherdog.com a "bitch" and a "dyke" and her story as "retarded." He later apologized and insisted people who know him know that he isn't anti-gay or anti-woman. Apparently his explanation to his bosses was better than Torres's explanation to him this week.
In any hierarchal structure, the tenor of what is acceptable to say is set from the top and trickles down as implied policy to everyone else. What White said was aimed as a personal attack at a specific person. What Torres did was a bad joke presented without any context at the wrong time (shortly after White's fuse was shortened by Griffin and Rashad, and in the midst of kicking off their Fox relationship). It probably didn't help Torres that he wasn't booked in the main event of an upcoming show and isn't a PPV draw yet.
White is in a new position where his reactions to situations like this need more transparency because they're going to undergo more scrutiny. UFC isn't a PPV company anymore; it's not on the same network that is aimed at men with a juvenile sense of humor, the home of TNA Impact Wrestling featuring women athletes being treated like trash and called pole dancers almost every week and being forced to strip to their bikinis and wash cars to keep their jobs. (That was actually the theme of last week's TNA Impact Wrestling show on Spike TV, by the way.) They're on Fox and FX, the home of top rated show "American Idol" and the critically acclaimed "American Horror Story," "Always Sunny In Philadelphia," and "Louie," all featuring well-known and respected actors and comedians and musicians.
UFC fighters are public figures, and anything they say in any forum that is also used to promote themselves and their fights counts as something said "at the workplace." They can say whatever they want sitting around smoking pot with their friends in their basement while playing Xbox. They can say whatever they want at dinner while drinking wine with their family. But a public Twitter account is a public statement that reflects on them, their colleagues, their sport, and the organization promoting their fights and issuing their paychecks.
We often hear "First Amendment Rights!" shouted durings times like these. Imagine yourself in Dana White's position. Let's say you owned a beauty salon (because we know that you're secret dream) and you hired a receptionist who told ugly customers "no haircut's going to fix that nose" or "no hair coloring is going to hide those hips." He's out of work; you'd fire him in a second. First Amendment has nothing to do with it; the First Amendment is about government regulating speech, not an employer deciding that someone's public statements are bad for business. So White has every right to fire Torres over this. That's open and shut, and First Amendment Rights literally have nothing to do with this situation.
While UFC fighters have to hold themselves to a higher standard, so does White when it comes to explaining his decisions in a transparent, consistent manner, and making sure his fighters have a Code of Conduct clearly established so they can't claim they are blindsided by his decisions.
I think Torres deserves a second chance (or else Rashad Evans should also be fired). I think White should be forgiven for his comments two years ago. I think even Rashad deserves to remain on the roster, despite his awful judgment earlier this week. I also think UFC needs to send out Code of Conduct statements to every fighter letting them know explicitly that starting today there is a zero tolerance policy for public comments that can reflect poorly on the company (even if you were drunk at 2 a.m. and didn't mean anything by it or some buddy posted it as a joke and it wasn't even you who Tweeted it), and that policy needs to be returned with the signature of every fighter before they can be booked for another UFC fight. And then apply the policy consistently going forward, even if that fighter is scheduled for the main event of a Fox fight card in six days or six hours. In the long run, it's best for UFC to draw a sharp, clear line and make sure there's no ambiguity in the minds of contracted fighters.
Wade Keller is supervising editor of MMATorch. He has covered MMA since before UFC 1 for the Torch Newsletter, and is among the longest tenured reporters covering the sport. He is a double-black-stripe belt in tae kwon do and has practiced judo and jiu jitsu at the North Star Martial Arts Academy under Michelle Holtze and Tom Crone. He founded MMATorch.com as a dedicated MMA website in 2006 and launched the MMATorch App in 2008. MMATorch is among the top five most read MMA-dedicated brands in the world.
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