(The Baldfather advertises yet another media outlet that won’t be lobbing any critical coverage his way. / Photo via Getty)
Ideally, the relationship between professional sports organizations like the UFC and media members should be about interdependence, where both parties rely equally upon each other. In practice, many MMA media members and outlets often exist as the clingy, powerless co-dependent partners that put the needs of the UFC before the need for factual and accurate sports journalism.
Last week, a Twitter war-of-words erupted between Yahoo! Sports reporter Kevin Iole and UFC president Dana White over whether the UFC was hiding TRT-user Vitor Belfort in Brazil to avoid the scrutiny of an American athletic commission.
(Screencap via Reddit_MMA)
It’s understandable why White feels threatened by media scrutiny; Iole certainly hasn’t pulled any punches regarding the lack of consequences for using performance enhancers in boxing and MMA. While the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball could survive for 211 games without Alex Rodriguez (or the other disgraced players) in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal, the already watered-down cards promoted by the UFC would lose even more star power if known TRT-users (Vitor Belfort, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir — and counting) were culled from the promotion.
MMA fans on MixedMartialArts.com’s UG forum observed that Kevin Iole could be denied media credentials for his failure to toe the UFC’s company line. This is not an empty threat, as many different outlets and individuals including ESPN.com’s Josh Gross, SI.com’s Loretta Hunt, CagePotato.com and Deadspin.com are all barred from press row at UFC events.
The public needs to grasp the reality that being an MMA reporter isn’t just about having a nice buffet and a comped ticket at a fight card. It’s about access to prominent fighters, coaches, managers and promoters to get the inside scoop and flesh out stories not reported elsewhere. When newly-crowned UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman visited ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, Josh Gross was denied an opportunity to interview Weidman. Banned media members may also miss out on a PR mailing list where media outlets learn about breaking UFC news, conference calls that allow media to ask questions to the headliners of major pay-per-view shows, and other events that media can be invited to.
The fear of losing those perks remains a potent sanction by the UFC in ensuring media compliance. I reference Exhibit A: an e-mail written by Bleacher Report staffer Jeremy Botter (leaked by Deadspin.com) that outlined several ways for MMA writers to avoid conflict with the UFC, including the following points:
- Don’t delve too deep into Zuffa financials. This goes for fighter pay, revenue, money donated to political campaigns. This is Dana’s biggest pet peeve…
This is a very good way to piss them off and find yourself blacklisted. Stay away from it…
- Don’t be negative just to be negative or edgy. Dana doesn’t mind being asked tough questions, but consider the circumstance when you’re doing it. If you’re at a press conference or a conference call for a UFC event, keep your questions related to that event…
…You’re always being watched. I don’t say this to scare you. I say it to let you know that you’re not an unknown commodity, and that people are paying attention. They read what you write. Mistakes you make now, when you think you’re under the radar, could end up burning you down the line…
While there are plenty of apologists pointing to the pragmatic portions of Botter’s e-mail as common-sense journalistic guidelines — guidance needed by the part-time writers at The Bleacher Report — the e-mail is just further evidence of the power the UFC has when it comes to intimidating the media into compliance.
To their credit, The Bleacher Report hasn’t completely white-washed its coverage by avoiding stories critical of the UFC or MMA, evidenced by features on traumatic brain injury, John Cholish breaking down the cost to be a UFC fighter or writing on why MMA isn’t the world’s fastest-growing sport. But who can really say how gun-shy MMA media members are when it comes to their reporting when they know the rug can be yanked out on them at anytime, for any reason?
Dana White also has an established pattern of publically lashing out at MMA reporters for various infractions of an unwritten code. Some notable examples from recent memory:
- Calling Loretta Hunt a “fucking moron,” and a “fucking dumb bitch” in 2009:
- Calling Sherdog writer Jake Rossen a “fucking douchebag” and “bullshit reporter” in 2009:
Even if Hunt, Rossen or Goldstein had behaved unprofessionally, there are much more effective ways for a promoter to command respect than by lobbing insults and threats. The tone of Dana White’s language suggests that the UFC feels entitled to favorable coverage, and often views the MMA media as an extension of its PR wing.
It’s no wonder why the UFC would see the MMA media as more of a tool than as an independent platform for news — many MMA websites and publications rely on the UFC for advertising dollars, as I wrote about for CagePotato in a February article (Shill ‘Em All: Why Ethical MMA Journalism Is So Hard to Come By). It is reported that the UFC purportedly invested $44 million under the guidance of the Fertittas to achieve the success it has today, and thus the current Zuffa ownership may see the MMA media as parasitic beneficiaries of their investment. Lost in the mix has been the distressing development of the blurred lines between advertising and editorial in ways that most readers are generally unaware of.
It was announced in January 2011 that the UFC had partnered with Heavy.com to produce a web show called Fight Day Live. I received a tip that the UFC funds the VICE magazine MMA-offshoot Fightland. Indeed, partnering with major brands is an integral part of VICE’s business plan.
When contacted for comment about VICE magazine’s relationship with the UFC, Fightland editor-in-chief Josh Rosenblatt was resolute in stonewalling any questions, saying “I don’t really want to be the subject of a story…Fightland and VICE have no comment.”
A PR representative from the UFC also refused to comment for this article on the UFC partnering with Heavy.com. While I don’t fault the UFC for allegedly forging a partnership with VICE or investing in Heavy.com to promote the UFC brand, I believe the editorial independence of said publications needs to be continually questioned.
Hard-hitting investigative journalism is not every individual or outlet’s forte. But if the MMA media backpedals away from key issues like performance enhancing drugs, UFC financials or contractual clauses that amount to slavery, then the sport is much more open to corruption. It isn’t the responsibility of the media to lobby for the Muhammad Ali Act to be applied to MMA, but it is the job of journalists to explain how little transparency exists for fighters attempting to determine their value because they have no information about the profits reaped by UFC parent company Zuffa. The same goes for the cases of Ben Askren, Jon Fitch, or Matt Lindland being devalued by Bellator or the UFC for their boring grinding style of fighting: The media doesn’t have to defend said wrestlers as entertaining commodities, but there should be articles written about the need for legitimate rankings that determine title contenders instead of allowing promotions to assign title shots based on whatever is expedient at the moment.
SI.com’s Jeff Wagenheim once wrote an article on Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt being subsequently barred from Strikeforce events when the UFC assumed ownership in 2011. The piece included a quote from Roy Peter Clark, an instructor of sports journalism at the Poynter Institute that suggested a response to Zuffa’s tactics, “It would be a good thing if news organizations applied some counterpressure.”
But where is this “counterpressure?” exactly? The last set of UFC rankings by Wagenheim have Chael Sonnen at the number two position at light-heavyweight, ahead of Phil Davis, Glover Teixera and any other contenders with more than one win in a row. This dovetails with Dana White’s criticism at UFC Fight Night 26 that the media had ranked Sonnen too low. MMAFighting.com’s Chuck Mindenhall wrote an article that thoughtfully points out the utter meaninglessness of UFC rankings, but doesn’t dare suggest that the MMA media should avoid being co-opted into the con.
As long as reporters — some independent, others bankrolled by the promoter — adhere strictly to scripted questions on safe topics, then sadly, the attrition on MMA journalism will continue with no end in sight.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.