By George Shunick
Matt Mitrione’s recent controversy isn’t the first time a fighter has opened his (or her) mouth and said something stupid. It’s also not the first time a fighter has been punished by Zuffa for doing so. Due to the seemingly arbitrary manner in which punishments were handed out, and the ambiguous definition of offenses deemed unacceptable, there has long been a need for a basic code of conduct for UFC employees and athletes.
This was finally realized earlier this year, and the new code of conduct was made public one week ago. In fact, it’s been used by UFC Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein as a means of persuading the New York State assembly to recognize MMA as a legitimate sport, and the UFC as a legitimate organization on par with the NFL and MLB. But while it marks a progressive effort on the part of the UFC in establishing ethical guidelines for fighters, it’s still prone to the same criticisms of favoritism that the UFC has endured due to its past disciplinary discrepancies.
The first section of the code of conduct regards criminal offenses; specifically, “the use or threat of violence,” “domestic violence,” “theft,” “sex offenses,” “obstruction or resisting arrest,” “disorderly conduct,” “fraud,” “racketeering,” and “money laundering.” Most of these should be pretty obvious offenses. What is less clear, however, is whether or not a fighter has to be convicted of these offenses to be punished for them.
Recall that Jeremy Stephens allegedly beat a man into a near-fatal coma and ignored multiple arrest warrants, but was supported by the UFC in the aftermath and recently signed a four-fight deal despite losing his last three fights. Fair enough, you may say; he wasn’t convicted. However, when Brett Rogers beat his wife in early 2011, Zuffa quickly discarded him before any judgment was rendered. Both cases come before this code of conduct was set in place but they illustrate an unsettling malleability to how these “rules” may be interpreted, as they have been previously.
Also of note is the section pertaining to “derogatory or offensive content, including without limitation insulting language, symbols or actions about a person’s ethnic background, heritage, color, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.” It’s clearly the section Mitrione was punished for, and it’s pretty obvious that Mitrione’s comments were a violation. However, what about Joe Rogan’s comments? Or Matt Hughes’? I’m not arguing either approached the vitriol of Mitrione’s remarks, but at the same time you could easily make the argument either man violated the code of conduct.
It’s a difficult line to draw, and perhaps to the organization neither comment crossed it. But would the UFC err on the side of restraint if the perpetrator wasn’t an established commodity within the company? The UFC is a business after all; it became successful by correctly weighing positive benefits against negative benefits. Is the risk of negative feedback from a fighter worth the benefit of virtually no name recognition, particularly when the organization is still politically sensitive in its effort to become legalized in New York? Not likely.
This isn’t to say the UFC’s code of conduct is a failure. It’s a success, to a degree. Previously, it wasn’t evidence what offences could lead to fines or releases for UFC fighters. Now there’s a guideline. It may be a bit vague, but this is a scenario where fighters ought to know that it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to anything that could conceivably violate the code. It’s a step in the right direction for the UFC and its fighters, and a necessary one if it’s to be taken as a professional sports organization on par with the NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.
However, the lack of enumerated punishments is troubling. In addition to a lack of particular offenses, the other complaint against Zuffa’s disciplinary policies has been that they play favorites in who they select to punish. When Forrest Griffin tweeted about rape, he was reprimanded and forced to apologize and undergo counseling. When Miguel Torres did the same thing, he was released without warning. (The first time. The second time, well, he should have seen that coming.) There’s always going to be a certain degree of subjectivity when it comes to punishments regarding personal conduct, particularly in regards to speech. But under the UFC, these penalties have – in general – had extraordinary discrepancies based upon name recognition alone.
There is nothing in the UFC’s new code of conduct that suggests this type of favoritism will be rectified. Granted, it’s difficult to precisely articulate whether or not an employee violates certain sections of this code – such as “offensive content” – and how to determine a precise punishment. Many other leagues, such as the NFL, deal with this on a case by case basis. But the NFL has a history of punishing its more established players, while Zuffa has the opposite track record.
If push comes to shove, will the UFC suspend or fine Jon Jones if he crashes a car driving drunk (again)? Will they do the same to Joe Rogan if he pushes the envelope a little too far outside the confines of his standup act? This code of conduct continues to allow Zuffa to apply punishment that is not proportionate to the offense committed, but rather to the perpetrator’s standing within the company.
Again, the UFC’s code of conduct is part of a larger, necessary progress for the organization, both in terms of a political requirement to recognition and as an ethical obligation to its employees. And the flaws it possesses are shared by other major sports as well, which dictate punishments arbitrarily based on their subjective interpretation of their own rules and the pressures from consumers. Perhaps that subjectivity and potential for abuse are inevitable consequences of a code of conduct when it comes to the highly variable behavior of public figures.
It’s still a potential problem. Whether it will become something more or not depends on Zuffa’s execution of its new policy, and whether or not they choose to exercise discrepancy for the convenience of their bottom line. Thus far there’s little reason to believe they won’t.