(“I drink coconut water because it’s the world’s greatest natural source of electrolytes. Plus, Obama has been putting cyanide in our tap water since March 2010. Open your eyes, people.” Photo via Esther Lin/Showtime)
One of the more enjoyable aspects of MMA — and the athletes who participate in it – is that even as the sport has grown exponentially in popularity over the past half-decade, the personalities that comprise it have remained extraordinarily candid in their interactions with the general public. It keeps fighters down to earth relative to athletes in other sports — Chris Kluwe excluded — and creates a sense of community between the fans and fighters that is unique to MMA. Of course, every now and then, a fighter (or promoter) will take things a step too far.
Take Ronda Rousey. Just the other day she caught heat for saying that Georges St. Pierre, the most dominant champion in welterweight history and arguably the most complete fighter in the sport, was only famous because he was attractive and Canadian. After the ensuing outcry, Ronda clearly gave the matter a lot of thought and decided to be more conscious of what she said in public forums…and proceeded to tweet an “extremely interesting must watch video” suggesting the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children and 6 adults in December was the product of a government conspiracy to push anti-gun legislation. Amidst a storm of criticism, she eventually took down the tweet hours later.
Let’s be clear: This is probably the single largest public relations blunder any prominent professional fighter has committed since Quinton “Rampage” Jackson lived up to his nickname. Rousey originally justified it by saying “I just figure asking questions and doing research is more patriotic than blindly accepting what you’re told.” Which is an interesting thing to say, considering she just blindly accepted what a YouTube video — presumably constructed by a reactionary paranoid living in his mom’s basement — told her, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.
I’m not going to bother debunking the delusional, callous and vile assertions of that video here. If you believe that the President ordered an elite team of assassins to kill 20 children or that the incident was entirely fabricated (conspiracy theorists can’t seem to decide which is the case, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering there’s a complete lack of evidence for either), there’s no hope for you. But those are the theories that Rousey is endorsing. She’s not just “asking questions”; by posting that video, she’s implicitly promoting the notion that Sandy Hook is a ploy by a tyrannical government. (While Jon Fitch also posted the same video, he immediately questioned its authenticity and readily acknowledged its fraudulence when confronted with evidence.)
But so what? This a country founded on free speech, right? For all you aspiring constitutional scholars out there in the comments section, that only means the government can’t prevent you from saying anything, and can’t punish you for saying almost anything. It doesn’t mean speech comes without consequences; just ask Miguel Torres. (More on him later.) Rousey has a platform — one she has willingly embraced — as an ambassador for her entire gender within the sport and for the sport itself. Her public statements don’t just reflect on her character or marketability, but on the character and marketability of the institution she represents as well. And she’s failed in that responsibility in a truly despicable manner. This isn’t just a joke in poor taste, this is something that has legitimate, harmful repercussions on people who deserve anything but.
Still, this is the price you pay for the UFC’s social media policy, or lack thereof. See, having fighters speak their minds, unfiltered by any mandatory restrictions, is a positive in the sense of accessibility it creates. But it swiftly becomes a negative when they cross a certain line. The problem is that line isn’t clearly defined. Two years ago, Miguel Torres was fired for tweeting a joke about rape. He was rehired soon after, but the point was clear — the UFC wasn’t going to tolerate any more rape jokes. (Well, unless you’re a former champion of the UFC’s glamour division and a reality TV star.) Torres didn’t heed the message, and was fired last year.
While Torres’s jokes were in bad taste and deservedly criticized, there’s no denying Rousey’s comments are worse. So she’s getting fired, right? At least fined? Of course she’s not; she’s headlining a pay-per-view in a month and she’s the face of women’s MMA. As much as the UFC might profess to care about what its fighters say, when it comes to disciplining them it comes down to what the fighter does for the company. There’s no set of rules or disciplinary actions to be taken in the event of a violation of a public conduct policy because there is no public conduct policy. Not only does this ensure that punishments will be meted out as Dana White — himself no stranger to PR disasters — sees fit, it ensures that these incidents will continue to happen because fighters aren’t given limits on what is acceptable public discourse from the company that could punish them for breaching those non-existent limits.
Obviously, this has to change. The UFC has to institute a clearly-defined personal conduct policy and enumerate the violations and the consequences if it wants to avoid further disasters like this. It’s only fair to the fighters to know what they can and can’t express in public, and it’s only fair that fighters who violate the same policies can be assured of receiving the same punishments. The openness of social media in MMA is a great thing, but there is absolutely nothing positive about Rousey’s recent comments. Are the outrage over this and the lies she’s helped perpetuate really worth finding out that Rousey has — like many athletes and, frankly, people in general — an exceptionally poor grasp of how the world actually works? It’s impossible to see how anyone could argue that.
When we say we have free speech in America, it doesn’t necessarily mean what we often think it means. You don’t have the right to say anything you want, whenever you want. While it’s true the government can’t censor your speech preemptively, you can still be punished in certain instances where society has concluded that the benefits of complete free speech do not outweigh the detriment of certain uses of speech. Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre is probably the most well-known example. It’s possible to be sued for libel or slander as well. No one is complaining about this; it’s fairly evident that certain restrictions are logical and morally sound.
But even in something as old as American law, we’re still trying to figure out just how to apply this principle. Perhaps it’s appropriate that as we come to define the consequences of speech in the fledgling medium of the internet, the fledgling sport that has seen its rise coincide with the rise of the World Wide Web must now come to terms with its own speech limitations, most notably within that medium. Instead of libel or death threats, however, the UFC must define a more nebulous set of standards, as much for the benefit of its fighters as for itself. At what point are we willing to sacrifice the access we possess to the fighters? At what point does their right to free speech become abridged? Ultimately, should they take the necessary steps, that will be the UFC’s decision. However, one thing is certain; if Miguel Torres’ offensive jokes were deemed inappropriate, then Ronda Rousey’s latest controversy is definitely beyond the pale.