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Posted May 13, 2015 by Sydnie Jones in Editorials
 
 

When a Convicted Domestic Abuser gets a Title Shot: Sexism, Misogyny, and Domestic Violence in MMA, Part 3

jonescarRead Part 1 and Part 2

The UFC has really had a rough go of it lately. Between the light heavyweight champ arrested for a hit and run, their fighters saying really stupid things, buy/view rates dropping, Mike Goldberg’s NFL commentating fiasco, and the massive class action lawsuit filed against them alleging violation of antitrust laws, it’s like they can’t make a move without stepping in it.

Dana White may not realize it, but this is exactly what he wanted. As mentioned in part two, White’s totalitarian regime, which includes dismantling competition, signing talent despite bloated divisions and mediocre cards, and blacklisting, ensures that all eyes are on the UFC. White wants the attention and exposure, but says the accompanying scrutiny is an insult. This is what happens, however, when you insist on being acknowledged while undermining the competition.

White demands a jingoistic allegiance from everyone, operating as though the media should be grateful the UFC acknowledges them. But, as mentioned in part one, few outside of MMA care about MMA. Its reach and cultural significance doesn’t begin to approach the extent of other professional sports leagues. The people who most commonly want White’s attention – fighters and managers, MMA journalists, and fans – are those who might benefit from it. White has mistaken this influence and power for actual influence and power.

The heady delusion will end one way or another. The lawsuit has challenged the UFC’s belief that they’re untouchable, although it appears they’re only now realizing the impotence of insisting so. The years of blithe entitlement and elitism as the UFC plowed through fighter after fighter, capitalizing on the relative obscurity of the sport at the expense of the people who make them money, are probably over. White can’t slough this off with dismissive, blase indifference. Even if the UFC manages to wriggle free without severe financial penalties and owing restitution, the landscape of fighter/UFC negotiations is changing, to one more sympathetic to those actually fighting.

With stories of UFC fighters – where the UFC is the highest level of MMA in the entire world, remember – using GoFundMe and holding down full time jobs abounding, White’s insistence that they’re the best promotion begs for further examination. The best…for whom?  As Trent Reinsmith points out:

You know what you never hear from other professional sports these days? How an athlete competing in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB has to work a job prior to practice in order to make ends meet.

The UFC has a considerable journey ahead if they want to find a way out of the corner they’ve backed themselves into. They offer a sub-par product, don’t pay enough for the (presumably) most elite fighters to support themselves, and have public gaffe after gaffe of both White and fighters being straight up embarrassing. Then there’s the tendency towards sexism and presenting female fighters as sex objects to further cement their image as self-serving and out-of-touch. On top of all that, the UFC has policies about domestic violence that read well, but they seem to have little interest in actually applying them across the board.

The time is now, it would appear, when they have stripped their second-most famous champ of his title, and they’ve inked a sponsorship deal with a major brand, and their efforts to gain attention are bearing unintended fruit, to overhaul their image.

Part three of this series addresses steps the UFC can take, and why they should take them, to reform the image they’ve earned of how they treat women, sexism, and domestic violence. In fact, the UFC could reform their policies and code of fighter conduct so much that they could be the most progressive professional sports league and set an amazing precedent. If White and Zuffa really want to stand out, setting wildly progressive policies – especially coming from a sports industry that has nurtured a persona of hyper-masculinized barbarism – would likely get serious attention from the mainstream media. But the policies really have to be ground-breaking and exceptional. So here are some suggestions, UFC. Hit me up if you want to talk further.

1) Actually enforce the domestic violence policy Anthony Johnson, winner

This is truly novel. The policy says that “discipline” may be imposed for “domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse” and “sex offenses.” Discipline may be “fines, suspension, and cessation of service.”

Well, that’s vague, but luckily UFC President Dana White has articulated their policy more specifically:

“We’ve been like that since day one…There’s one thing that you never bounce back from and that’s putting your hands on a woman. Been that way in the UFC since we started here. You don’t bounce back from putting your hands on a woman.” via MMAFighting.com

That sounds great! Except it’s bullshit. Abel Trujillo pleaded guilty twice to domestic abuse assault and Anthony Johnson pleaded no contest to and was convicted and sentenced for charges of domestic violence. Both are still in the UFC, and the UFC, so far, refuses to explain why they get a pass. Not only that, but when the charges were brought against Johnson in 2009, and when he pleaded no contest in 2010, he was in the UFC. It wasn’t until 2012 that he was released – after multiple failures to make weight. Not because of his two-year-old conviction of and sentencing for domestic violence. And the UFC certainly knew about that when they re-signed him in early 2014. And when they gave him a title shot for UFC 187, coming up May 23rd.

Even if we put ‘day one’ of the UFC as the year when the Fertittas bought it, it would be another six years before Johnson debuted. So approximately day 2,190. Presumably, that would be plenty of time for the UFC’s stance on domestic violence to firm and mature. Certainly by the time Johnson was arrested for domestic violence two years later, the policy would be well-established.

In fact, Johnson was recently suspended from the UFC, following another accusation of domestic violence – the third woman in five years to make such claims. What are the odds? That Anthony Johnson is cursed and women choose him to arbitrarily accuse of domestic violence? Or that Anthony Johnson, a man with a documented history of violence against women, is part of the 62% recidivism statistic?

As I said to Businessweek:

The UFC needs to unequivocally sever ties with any fighter ever convicted of or who pleaded guilty or no contest to domestic violence…Regardless of whether a fighter with convictions of domestic violence has been rehabilitated, the UFC can’t afford the association if they want to cultivate as respectable an image of MMA as possible.

Keeping any fighter who’s been accused of domestic violence or sexual assault is a risky move, regardless of the outcome, and the UFC needs to examine each instance extensively. The ideal resolution is “creates no further association between domestic violence and MMA,” not “successfully swept under the rug with the broom of a flawed justice system.” The UFC is always trying to control the narrative, and that may have worked when MMA was smaller and the fandom was homogeneous and insular, but it doesn’t work anymore. White doesn’t seem to realize this.

The UFC is operating under dated perceptions of domestic violence. This is evidenced by Dana White suspending Anthony Johnson, and then sympathizing more with Johnson’s version of events. White puts the accuser on trial, calling into question her past, her moral character, and her honesty:

“…if you look into this situation this girl has a ton of felonies and she’s got a real bad history of stuff. And the thing is, when she’s saying this happened, he wasn’t even in the country.” via Fox Sports

The point isn’t whether those things are true. The point is that if the UFC wants to appear cognizant of and knowledgeable about the complexity of domestic violence, having the president of your company vilify a possible victim of domestic violence never, ever reflects well on your company. All it reflects on is White’s ignorance of the issue, that he sees the two parties in the incident as possibly equally responsible, that the accuser deserves as extensive an investigation as the accused, and that the first response should be to doubt the accuser – regardless of how infrequent false accusations of domestic violence are (extremely).

White also inadvertently perpetuates a very dangerous standard for taking claims of domestic violence seriously. While talking to Fox Sports Live, White answered questions about Ray Rice, domestic violence, and Thiago Silva’s recent re-signing. White says,

“…the (Ray Rice) video is horrifying. Absolutely horrifying.

“If you believe in the process, if you believe in the legal process, they came, [police] arrested him and he wasn’t brought up on any charges. Plus, I know a lot more of the story and what went on. If you take his side of the story, her side of the story, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but he went through the process and he wasn’t charged with anything. The guy should have the ability to make a living…If some tape (of Thiago Silva) surfaced like in this one [with Rice], but the police have already investigated this entire thing and they let the guy go.” via MMAFighting.com

I doubt White intends to suggest we can’t take accusations of domestic violence seriously unless there’s a video of it. Unfortunately, that’s what he’s doing. The subtext is that we can’t trust multiple accusations (there were three against Silva from his ex-wife), police reports, and the testimony of (usually) women, unless we have independent verification of the events.

I wish this weren’t true, because it’s pernicious, dangerous, and sexist. But then, White held true to this new standard when he cut Thiago Silva after video surfaced of him behaving in a way that reflected poorly on the UFC, explaining that,

“That’s it. He walked into his soon-to-be ex-wife’s house with a Glock 9mm, He’s one of the f–king baddest dudes on the planet, you don’t need to go looking for anybody with a 9mm. You know what I mean? Thiago Silva does not need to walk in anywhere with a 9mm. That just shows bad intentions. Him being there, he’s menacing, he’s a physical, menacing guy, he’s a scary guy alone. Walking in with a gun tells me he wasn’t there to f–king talk. He was there to scare, horrify, terrify or shoot some people.” via Fox Sports

Instead of cutting Thiago Silva and leaving him cut based on multiple police reports citing domestic abuse and a SWAT team stand off, White cuts Silva off for doing something that isn’t even illegal. Terrifying, alarming, threatening, and dangerous, sure. But not illegal. The difference is that the video of a UFC fighter looking strung out and walking around with a gun reflects worse on the UFC, in White’s mind, than accusations of a UFC fighter physically assaulting a woman. This also typifies a common, ignorant narrative in our culture: accusations of domestic violence just don’t merit taking seriously. We see this evidenced again and again. And one of the reasons this narrative exists is because when women accuse men of attacking them – physically or sexually – the default response is often skepticism, from law enforcement and the public alike.

​The continued employment of fighters like Anthony Johnson and Abel Trujillo illustrates a towering arrogance, a Goliathesque air of impunity, that disregards and discredits the legitimacy of reports like Bloody Elbow’s & MMAJunkies’. But rest assured; if MMA were a mainstream sport, revelations such as those would be reaching a far greater audience. Trujillo and Johnson’s employment would be intensely scrutinized and likely terminated, and the UFC would be unilaterally castigated in the media for their response to and handling of these issues. If MMA were a mainstream sport, Mike Goldberg being shitty to people on Twitter would’ve been called out long ago – it’s no coincidence his first apology came right after the exposure commentating on an NFL game gave him. If MMA were a  mainstream sport, White wouldn’t feel safe in blacklisting journalists from participating in pressers. That only a handful in the MMA community care about Anthony Johnson’s and Abel Trujillo’s histories of beating up women doesn’t suggest the concerns are misplaced or meaningless. It suggests nobody outside of MMA is paying attention to MMA.

So, enforce the domestic violence policy, as stated in the code of conduct and straight from White’s mouth.

2) Tell Joe Rogan to check his ignorant hot takes if he wants to keep his job.

Joe Rogan has a thorough knowledge of grappling and striking and is probably one of the best MMA commentators available. If the UFC wants to take MMA mainstream, getting him to temper the endless torrent of ignorant, self-serving bullshit that spills from his lips would be a good start.

Let’s pretend MMA gradually becomes mainstream, and those outside of it start looking into one of MMA’s most recognizable faces. They will stumble across such gems as:

 

Then there was the time he called journalist Maggie Hendricks “cunty.”

…I do think that this woman in question is all kinds of cunty. The Skywalker broke down everything that’s wrong with her and her shitty, cunty brand of writing to a fucking T. – via Cage Potato

And then apologized for/defended his usage of “cunty,” along with other gendered insults such as “bitchy.”

My use of the word “c*nty” in retrospect was unfortunate, and more of a symptom of my stand up comic vernacular than what more verbally conservative people would interpret the word as. “C*nty” is just another word for bitchy….

…The term “bitchy” to describe the style of the writer in question and her take on things is both accurate and appropriate. – via Bloody Elbow

But lest you think I take exception to Rogan because he’s an idiot about feminism and gendered insults, there was also the time he called Tomas Rios a “faggot” and a “cock-sucker” for criticizing Rogan’s commentating. And the other time when he bloviated about his entitlement to use the slur “faggot,” and why it’s not actually a gay slur. Luckily, it gave us this:

You want to talk about the word faggot because it really offends you? Well, you’re a douchebag. It’s really that simple. Anyone who gets annoyed by certain words or gets upset and outraged…though the word ‘n—-r’ is different since it’s dehumanizing. There’s a lot of hate and anger behind that word…I don’t think ‘faggot’ has the same connotation to the people who are saying it.

No, he wouldn’t think that, because he’s ignorant and insistent it’s cool if he stays ignorant, while demanding he gets his way. Never mind that he’s objecting to oppressed minorities doing the same thing – except ‘their way’ is a very basic request to not be oppressed and dehumanized through language. But Joe Rogan can’t be bothered with anything that would infringe on his personal freedom to that degree, because that’s truly offensive. Not myriad homophobic, transphobic, sexist insults.

But let’s give Rogan credit where credit’s due. He retired the use of “faggot,” he says, because it’s just not worth the headache that ensues when over-sensitive homos flip out about it when omg he doesn’t even mean it like that chill out!!:

Although I really do enjoy tossing around the word “faggot,” it’s so clearly an illogical hot-button word of offense to some people that I think I’m just going to stop using it all together. This whole distraction could have been avoided, and I could have expressed my exact same intent if I had referred to him as a “weak bitch” or any number of other insults that I think accurately describe his writing and his shitty personality. When I call someone a “faggot” it has nothing to do with their sexual preference, but try convincing some offended gay person that. In this ultra-sensitive world we live in that word is just too much of a liability, so I’m going to retire it from my vernacular. – via the UG

And if you want something more recent, below is 24 minutes of smug misinformation, where Rogan shares what he thinks feminism is. Here’s a highlight.

“There’s a meme online, ‘this is feminism’ and it’s a woman who is….holding up a sign saying ‘I’m a feminist’ and she’s fucking 300 pounds. And everyone is like, yeah, that’s feminism. Yeah, you’re right, it’s a big fat ugly girl that no one wants to fuck. That’s really unfortunate, but, the type of person that is a large unattractive woman is going to deal with…immeasurably, it’s going to be so much harder for her to find people that are sexually attracted to her, for her to find healthy relationships…it’s an unfortunate reality in this world that if you aren’t sexually attractive you’re not going to have as easy a ride…

“It’s not saying that all feminists are unattractive, or all feminists are not sexually viable, but I guarantee you almost all of them have had a lot of negative experiences with men…and it doesn’t mean all men are negative.”

So this is one of the personalities people encounter most when they start digging into MMA. I was once one of those people. I had no idea Rogan was so colossally ignorant and willing to crow that ignorance endlessly to his legions of fans – fans who will just believe him when he reduces a social movement for equality down to women pouting about not getting male approval. And to women subscribing to feminism because they hate men because some men were mean to them, as though they’re such simplistic creatures they’d allow unpleasant experiences with a man or men to inform their entire perception of them. In the beginning of this Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan complains about feminists he says are ignorant about MRAs, and then proceeds to make categorically false claims about feminists and feminism. Are you fucking kidding me? Rogan has the rationale and complexity of a verbose 16 year old boy, which would be fine, except he’s got a huge platform and millions of people listening. Notice both his and Molyneux’s complete failure to cite sources for the claims they make.

“Feminism,” indeed.

The UFC should find this type of product from a key representative of the sport downright humiliating. It doesn’t matter if you make him wear a suit jacket at events; that’s an entirely superficial patch on a much more severe malignancy in MMA, and it doesn’t fool anyone.

Rogan is undoubtedly a coveted commentator and would likely have no problem finding another job, should the UFC release him, and given his capabilities as a commentator, they’re unlikely to do so. At least until MMA is mainstream enough that Rogan’s opinions become too much of an embarrassment and liability to MMA’s image, anyway. That day may be a long way off, but if MMA goes mainstream, rest assured, it will come. Instead, the UFC could have the best of both worlds – be explicit about what they’re willing to associate with, thereby retaining Rogan as a commentator. Provided he can bear to have his personal freedoms trampled on to that extent.

Irvin is going to tell you what's what.

Irvin is going to tell you what’s what.

3) Keep Lloyd Irvin off cameras and out of corners.

Alleged cult-leader Lloyd Irvin is often seen cornering when fighters from Team Lloyd Irvin are in the Octagon. And every time, it’s a reminder that:
a) Lloyd Irvin, by his own admission, sat and watched while a 17 year old girl was most likely held down and forced to perform oral sex on someone (the charge for which fellow party-goer Terrence Gatling was found guilty), and tried to have sex with her but couldn’t. That doesn’t even mean his version of events are true – she says Irvin raped her while Gatling forced her to perform oral sex on him, and bruising around her lips and vagina do nothing to dispute her claim.
b) Lloyd Irvin, in a rambling, semi-coherent piece of propaganda, has suddenly changed his story about that old gang rape deal. During the trial and after, Irvin and his bros insisted the girl was a willing participant. In this video, Lloyd Irvin passionately declares he’s not a rapist, and cites that he was the only one acquitted of rape charges. So which is it? Were they all raping her and he wanted to but couldn’t? And then he says, “that’s the story they want to paint.” What story is that, I wonder. The one where Irvin watched as nine or ten of his friends gang-raped a 17 year old girl? Because that seems to be what he says happened, having already established that he was there. 
c) when a female student of Irvin’s said she was raped by two teammates, Irvin not only didn’t kick them off the team, he reportedly paid for their defense. Inexplicably, despite the female student’s testimony and the existence of a video that matched her testimony exactly, neither man was convicted. Irvin also released this bizarre ‘trailor, where he treated the alleged rape as an opportunity for salacious, horror-movie-esque propaganda. Certainly the degree of consideration, sensitivity, and respect regarding sexual violence you’d hope for from a public figure.

Lloyd Irvin is a walking teratoma. He is something incomplete, a confused mass of tissue and teeth and hair and bone but lacking the vital elements that result in a human. Also like a teratoma, he has somehow managed to survive like this, to eke out a parasitic existence that approaches something like a life. Allowing him to be shown on camera and cornering his fighters is an association from which the UFC should run, if they want to appear cognizant of the reality of sexual violence. The fix is easy and free.

4) Adam Hunter/MMA Roasted

We’ve written about Adam Hunter, known on Twitter as MMA Roasted, before. His brand of humor caters to the lowest common denominator, reliant on sophomoric humor, mindless topicality, and being gross about women. Any topic is fair game for Hunter if he thinks it will go over well. Like the accusations against Bill Cosby? The perfect opportunity to make a joke, because what’s funnier than dozens of women having almost certainly been drugged and raped by someone who never had to answer for it?

It doesn’t matter whether you find them funny or inoffensive. What matters is the UFC continually endorsing a comedian who routinely objectifies and debases its female fighters, both in his Tweets and on his podcast. And as a bonus, lately he’s been experimenting with weird race jokes! Again, no need to blackball him. Just make it clear that if he wants to make jokes about ejaculating into socks while watching UFC fighters, asking female fighters invasive questions about their sex lives, and making light of rape, the UFC will stop associating with him. Otherwise, they’re co-signing on shady, privileged oblivion like this:  

 

Not exactly a good look.

5) Institute a strict policy on gender-based and sexist language.

We write about the deleterious effects of oppressive language all the time. We write about it at length, and how much it sucks when the UFC treats it with lip service, ignores it entirely or actually employs it.  Examples of everyone from Dana White to division champions to gatekeepers to relative unknowns using gendered language abound, especially in trash talking. Were MMA as mainstream as the UFC would like, mainstream media would likely be reporting on the proliferation of words like ‘pussy’ and ‘bitch’ often.  Like so much of the boys’ club behavior in MMA, that this goes unchecked by the UFC is embarrassing.

Perhaps most problematic is that much of the time, these aren’t instances from a subject unwittingly caught on film, like when Jon Jones called Daniel Cormier a pussy. These are instances where the subject is in an interview, or on social media, or some other public platform, and chooses to use oppressive language anyway. And why not? Currently, there’s no incentive not to.

Certainly, our cultural lexicon is replete with these words in daily usage. But that’s irrelevant and doesn’t indicate that the concept of penalizing their usage is an overreaction. Dana White and fighters alike largely avoid using other types of oppressive language; usage of racial epithets are nearly non-existent, and the usage of homophobic slurs is dwindling rapidly. Whether these reductions are because they don’t hold the biases or because they know the cost of even casual usage is too great is also irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that when it’s beneficial to them, they choose not to use oppressive language.

The issue, one that advocates actively work to establish, is that many don’t consider gendered language to be oppressive. And let’s establish that oppressive language has real and lasting effects, which is why certain words become so verboten in our culture they aren’t even spelled out on television.  If you want more evidence, there are numerous academic studies and ample empirical evidence on the implications of oppressive language. Here’s a handful:

How Smart Language Helped End Seattle’s Paralyzing Bikelash
Slurs, Snubs, and Queer Jokes: Incidence and Impact of Heterosexist Harassment in Academia
Study Shows Gay Slurs Have Long Term Effects
Recollections of bullying at school and their long-term implications for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals
Generic Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics
Attitudes on Women Mediate the Gender Effect on Attitudes toward Sexist Language

And let’s also establish that ‘pussy’ and ‘bitch,’ when used as insults toward men, are intended to imply he’s not a real man, or not sufficiently masculine. ‘Pussy’ and ‘bitch,’ in this context, inarguably reference women. So, when men in MMA want to insult other men, their go-to insult is implying that they’re like women. The problem is readily apparent.

These are representatives of the UFC, acting within their industry, and facing no repercussions. Where, in the rest of the world, this guy is disgusting to a reporter at a game and is immediately fired by his employer – an employer that has nothing to do with sports. And in popular professional sports, players and coaches are routinely fined when they use language determined to be inappropriate. Just a few days ago, Matt Barnes was fined $50,000 for telling a player’s mother to “Suck (his) dick, bitch.” Plenty of other examples abound – most of which refer to homophobic slurs, racial epithets, and expletives.

In fact, it seems that officials rarely fine gendered or sexist language. This is a fantastic opportunity for the UFC to incorporate and enforce a policy on gendered language that no one else has. As evidenced by the growing public backlash, cultural norms are shifting toward rejecting this speech as a default, accepted part of our vernacular. It’s only a matter of time until gendered and sexist language is widely recognized as unacceptable and oppressive.

So why not be ahead of the curve, for once, and be surprisingly progressive, for once, by instituting strict penalties for using oppressive language of all types? The UFC has a poor track record of even just acknowledging when its fighters and employees use oppressive language, let alone actually penalizing them. It did so, however, when Matt Mitrione went on a transphobic rant against Fallon Fox in April of 2013. He was fined a painful amount, according to Dana White, who also said this about it:

He said some ignorant comments that made him sound like a complete jackass and a bigot.  He knew what he said wrong…Everybody’s crying ‘oh, it’s free speech.’  Work at any company in the world and give your opinion where you come off sounding like an ignorant bigot, see how long you last at that company.

Great! Now just enforce that unilaterally! So there is precedent, and White seems to have some degree of comprehension regarding how the things their fighters say reflect on the UFC. All that’s left is to acknowledge that by not penalizing gendered and sexist language, the UFC is saying it doesn’t think sexism and gender equality are issues worth taking seriously. Which, as we know, is a message they give us time and again. And one it’s vital to change.


 

The UFC has a difficult journey ahead in its efforts to legitimize MMA to a broader audience. The bloody, violent nature of the sport is already a considerable stumbling block for many. If the UFC wants to present MMA as a sport to be enjoyed for its elite physicality, technique, and talent, creating as clear a separation between the brutality and the skill will be vital in doing so.

Clinging adamantly to the idea that they can do and say whatever they want portrays Dana White and the UFC as bull-headed, entitled, and oblivious. And criticisms of the UFC, including these, aren’t attacks intended to harm. They’re oft-repeated observations of how the UFC repeatedly shoots itself in the foot, hindering the growth of the sport and damaging their image to people outside of MMA.

They need to start listening to what those who do care about MMA are trying to tell them.

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Sydnie Jones