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Thursday, April 02, 2009
Can There Be Decency and Tolerance in Mixed Martial Arts?
by Eddie Goldman
When Esera Tuaolo, an NFL defensive tackle for five teams in nine seasons who retired after the 1999 season, publicly stated in 2002 that he was gay, the league had a decision to make: Embrace him, ignore him, or condemn him.
Their answer, at least officially, and despite muted grumbling from some quarters, was seen at the 2006 rookie symposium. There Tuaolo spoke to the rookies as part of a panel discussing the issue of diversity in the NFL. ESPN.com quoted NFL vice president of player and employee development Mike Haynes as saying that when he took that job, “one of the things I wanted to really stress was tolerance.”
In February of this year, former NBA center John Amaechi, who played five seasons with Orlando, Utah, and Cleveland, and retired in 2003, also announced that he is gay. NBA commissioner David Stern told The Associated Press, “We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, ‘Have you got game?’ That’s it, end of inquiry.”
In 2005, the acclaimed documentary “Ring Of Fire,” focusing on former welterweight and middleweight boxing champion Emile Griffith, was shown on the USA Network, and re-released in 2007 on the MSG Network. Besides recounting the third, tragic fight between Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret in 1962, which led to Paret’s death, one prominent theme was Griffith’s sexuality. Many boxing insiders have long believed that Griffith is gay, and the documentary recounts how in 1992, upon leaving a gay bar in Manhattan, Griffith was attacked by a gang of thugs who beat him so badly that he almost died while in the hospital.
Today, Griffith, now 69, is a regular at ringside at New York boxing events and the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame festivities in Canastota, New York, and is always introduced and greeted by a hearty round of cheers.
Contrast these attempts at decency and tolerance, as belated and limited as they are, in these other sports with the milieu and, if we must use the word, culture in MMA.
Earlier this year, UFC president Dana White was a guest on shock jock Scott Ferrall’s show on Sirius Satellite Radio. The discussion turned to White’s rival, then-Pride USA executive Jerry Millen.
With a live audience cheering him on, White called Millen a “fuckin’ homo” and asked Ferrall, “What fuckin’ gay bar did you two meet in?” More of the same followed.
Shortly after radio host Don Imus was fired by CBS radio and MSNBC cable for his racist and sexist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, a post, purportedly from a fighter, appeared on a popular online MMA message board repeating Imus’s precise words to describe a forthcoming opponent who is African-American, like most of the Rutgers women’s team. While Internet message boards in general are too often receptacles of what is not even fit for sewers, the implication here was that what is considered disgusting, despicable, and inhuman by almost everyone else is just fine in MMA.
Countless other examples of such negative behavior and attitudes can be cited, especially on the UFC’s heavily-edited “reality” series on Spike TV. This program first became a hit by being placed directly after the highly-rated Monday night show of the W“W”E, thus appealing to those who crave sociopathic spectacles but also wanted to see some real fights. On the UFC show they got both, beginning with one fighter pissing in another’s bed.
There are many reasons people are attracted to MMA. Mostly it reflects just who they are before they discovered this genre. If they were amoral punks or even criminal elements who simply liked to see others get hurt and reveled in naked violence and the spilling of blood, that was what they sought here. If they were greedy, cold manipulators who wanted to have fighters smash each other’s bodies while they received the greatest financial rewards, this was for them. If they were sports fans, athletes, or even suits who were disgruntled with the endless scandals, corruption, and mediocrity in so many mainstream sports, here was an edgy place to go. If they were combat sports or martial arts aficionados who loved both competition and the demonstration of world-class techniques, that was here, too. If they were from the world of amateur wrestling and yearned for a real, professional league, this was the closest thing to it, especially with the success in MMA of so many top wrestlers. And, of course, there are numerous others, including that loud band of fans of the staged pro “wrestling” who want MMA to sink to the depths of this “sports entertainment” while still running shoots.
The outcome of the battle between these types of groups will determine whether MMA can, like so many other sports, begin to embrace decency and tolerance. It is a more complex version of the battle in the mid-1990s over whether it should be a sport or a spectacle.
These days the battle lines are about positioning the sport more along the lines of, as our friends in Brazil call it, arte suave, or the soft art, or something vulgar, crude, ugly, nasty, and, thus, socially dysfunctional.
This is entirely different from the issue of financial and TV ratings’ success. Jerry Springer, Vince McMahon, ad nauseam have become quite wealthy peddling garbage. The question is whether MMA will play a socially positive or negative role.
Decency and tolerance are not incompatible with fighting sports. Instruction in most martial arts and combat sports emphasizes values like respect, honor, dedication, hard work, modesty, honesty, cooperation, and discipline. It is mostly on the professional level, where the exploiters abound, that the culture of greed, selfishness, disrespect, dishonesty, arrogance, and parasitism often flourishes.
So can there be decency and tolerance in MMA? One would think that with the current alignment of forces, they are the underdogs. But who would have thought back when Emile Griffith was in his prime as a fighter, that with his sexuality more or less common knowledge, he would now be feted as a legend?
This battle over decency and tolerance is still raging. What will YOU do about it?