(“…and one more for that dude who plays Spock.” Photo via Zimbio)
During yesterday’s UFC 137 press conference, UFC president Dana White made his stance known on a controversial subject in pro sports (via MMA Mania):
“I’ll tell you right now, if there was a gay fighter in UFC, I wish he would come out. I could care less if there’s a gay fighter in the UFC. There probably is and there’s probably more than one. I mean, it’s 2012. Give me a break. But you’re going to have guys like Nogueira who come from Brazil, who’s got that macho, Latino — doesn’t want to roll with a gay guy. People are going to say stuff like this. But that’s the best answer I can give you is, give me a (freaking) break and be honest. Come on. We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes sometimes. It doesn’t mean that the UFC is bad and we’re unfit for children and all this other stuff. Tell you what: Out of the 375 guys, we’ve got a few lunatics, some guys that are nutty, and then we’ve got 300 and something that are incredible, awesome human beings who are inspirational to kids and adults and whoever else is a human being.”
Now, is this new support for gay fighters a reaction to the New York Culinary Workers Union trying to smear him as a homophobe? Obviously. Coming out as a supporter of gay athletes is the best public defense he could possibly make, now that the Local 226 is contacting the UFC’s sponsors and broadcast partners about the various slurs that White has used in the past, as well as the politically incorrect language used by Quinton Jackson, Michael Bisping, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Joe Rogan.
But I’m not taking the cynical view on this, because for one thing, I don’t believe that Dana White is a homophobe — he’s just one of those guys who grew up in an environment where “faggot” was a stand-in for “pussy,” “coward,” or any broader term of distaste. There are lots of guys like that, and while they could stand to clean up their vocabulary now that we’re deep into the 21st century, using “the other F word” isn’t the best gauge for what’s in a person’s heart. (Opposing gay marriage is a better one. Picketing soldiers’ funerals is another.)
I also think that Dana White understands the power of being associated with the first openly-gay star athlete in sports. MMA is already ahead of the pack on that front, as fighters Shad Smith and Liz Carmouche have discussed their sexual orientation in the past, receiving virtually no backlash from the MMA community at large. But Smith and Carmouche aren’t stars, and if one of the UFC’s well-known contenders or champions publicly came out as gay, it would represent a watershed moment for sports culture — maybe the first falling domino.
Other professional sports haven’t even had their Shad Smiths and Liz Carmouches yet. Will Leitch of New York Magazine wrote a recent column laying out the current cultural barometer regarding homosexuality in pro sports, pointing out that there’s never been a gay star actively playing in any of the four major sports leagues in this country, but the culture is shifting to the point where it now appears imminent. As Charles Barkley himself put it: “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play…Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person…I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”
So who wants to be that Gay Jackie Robinson? And what if it’s a big-name UFC fighter? My hope is that such a scenario would help redefine the meathead reputation of MMA, and establish MMA as more progressive and more accepting than other major sports — a great reputation to have as the UFC enters its network television phase. My fear is that fans in general still aren’t ready for it, especially in a sport that can make people uncomfortable enough as it is.