MMA and the Politics of Sexual Violence

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

As if the road to sanctioned professional MMA fighting in New York weren’t twisted enough, anti-domestic violence and women’s groups are now pressuring lawmakers to keep the current ban in place, arguing that the UFC is fostering a tolerance of rape and domestic abuse. Advocates made their feelings known a week ago in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"No state that aspires to be the 'progressive capital of the nation,' as you asserted in the recent State of the State speech, should lower itself by embracing an industry dominated by a company that tolerates joking about sexual violence," the letter reads. "Fighters in the UFC have joked about rape in public and one has appeared in videos that are demeaning to women and make fun of sexual violence."

The letter, authored by domestic violence activist Deborah Tucker, has the backing of eight groups including Tucker’s National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, the New York State Coalition on Domestic Violence, and the National Organization for Women.

MMA is no stranger to hyperbolic criticism. (See South Dakota state legislator Steve Hickey comparing MMA to child porn, for just one example.) But in this case it’s hard to say Tucker’s worries are totally baseless. Soul-withering bile about rape and abuse has crept from the mouths of a few MMA fighters over the years, including stars Forrest Griffin and Miguel Torres. And while Tucker concedes the ratio of assholes to decent people is probably no more or less in MMA than it is basketball, football, baseball, boxing, or really any other organized sport, she also argues that other organizations have set guidelines establishing exactly how much bullshit they’re willing to be associated with.

“All the other major ones have a code of conduct addressing it,” she tells Fightland. “The NFL has done probably the deepest work on this.”

Again, it’s a sane, rational, argument about an important issue. But here’s the problem–a full two months before New York’s politicians got Tucker’s email, the UFC announced exactly the kind of code she’s asking for.

As the letter recounts, last year the UFC’s Quinton “Rampage” Jackson posted a video in which he played a rapist trying to assault a woman in a parking garage with zip ties and chloroform. There was a lot of outcry, not only from women’s groups, but from most people who don’t cultivate impotent hostility as a lifestyle. 

For his part, Jackson claimed the video was meant to get him booted from the UFC via low-rent imitation of a Dave Chappelle sketch. So, someone who made his living at the UFC thought the organization would consider tasteless rape jokes a fireable offense. The outraged demanded Jackson be pulled from his January 2013 fight at UFC on Fox 6, and though the company refused to replace him, that fight looks like it will be his last with the promotion.

Spurred in part by this, that same month UFC announced it was rolling out a code of conduct to address fighter behavior outside the Octagon. The policy would be added to the initial agreements of every fighter the UFC signs and would include financial penalties and community service if a fighter were stupid enough to be a student of the Quinton Jackson School of rape comedy.

“For example, if you make a discriminatory comment about a certain community, you would be required to provide some community service to that community,” UFC Executive Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence Epstein said when the policy was announced. “In our view that’s going to turn into a benefit.  It’s easy to criticize people you don’t know, but once you get to know somebody, once you get to experience what they’re all about it sort of changes you as a person in a way that money or fines could never do.”

Epstein even name-checked the NFL’s example and went on to cite Major League Baseball and the NHL as well as a few other sports whose athletes are, like UFC fighters, independent contractors.

It’s not good enough for Tucker, however, who calls it “smoke and mirrors.”

“I don’t believe anyone has seen an actual code of conduct among our coalition of folks there in NY or around the country … at least we haven’t,” Tucker wrote in an email.

So, would seeing the code in person be enough to satisfy Tucker or would an independent party need to approve the wording? Would Tucker have to be personally involved in creating the code of conduct to be satisfied?

“We would certainly be willing to help them think about some of the issues that might come up and help with the strengths and weaknesses for policies in other sports so that when they do adopt something it has the benefit of looking at other companies and seeing what they’ve done,” she says. “I don’t say they have to invite me to their conference room, I don’t know if they want to go that far, but again it would be helpful to them to look at other policies.”

The argument gets even stickier when you consider that some of the first volleys against the UFC's record were launched by an anti-UFC site called unfitforchildren.org, which is backed by the Culinary Workers Union 226 in Las Vegas. That group happens to be embroiled in a long, wearying legal fight to get workers unionized at Station Casinos, which is owned by the Fertitta brothers, who also own the UFC. The union is a powerful lobbying group with an estimated 60,000 members, and UFC President Dana White has long maintained that it's the main obstacle to getting MMA sanctioned in New York state. Considering the letter to Cuomo advocates a broad MMA ban, it does seem odd to focus solely on the (admittedly awful) actions of a few UFC fighters while omitting examples from all the other promotions steadily cluttering up the landscape, or pressuring those same promotions to develop their own codes of conduct.

Tucker concedes that New York’s often-foggy legal views on MMA give her organization more weight than it may have otherwise. “The thing that the ban in New York creates is an opportunity for leverage,” she says. “If could be helpful but it may not happen either way.”

This is not the first time Tucker has tried to use that leverage. In January 2012 she wrote a letter to lawmakers criticizing the UFC as contributing to “a culture of violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people” and saying it could be harmful to young children.

Though sanctioned MMA in New York seems inevitable at this point, it’s impossible to say when the inevitable will happen. In the meantime, things remain murky, as they often do when money, morality, and public relations meet. Just last week, Quentin Jackson’s Rampage Academy gym in Mission Viejo, California, announced that tomorrow, March 28, Rampage himself will be “giving back to the community and hosting a free self defense seminar for women.” So there you go.  

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