The Donald Sterling situation the NBA finds itself in should be a cautionary tale for all owners, GMs, and presidents. Judgment hasn’t even been handed down to Sterling by the league’s commissioner, yet the court of public opinion has already sentenced Sterling. Sterling was taped in a private conversation allegedly saying some pretty disgusting things about race. However, for those NBA fans who follow the league in more than just a passing way, Donald Sterling’s reputation has always preceded him. In a 2006 piece, ESPN’s Bomani Jones talked about how Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent Beverly Hills apartments to black people. The lawsuit features quote-worthy testimony regarding Hispanics and African Americans including, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” There is nothing alleged about those comments. Those words are classic Sterling.
The remarks captured on tape are abhorrent as are the comments Sterling gave in his testimony in 2006, and he is reaping the just rewards of a public, fan base, organization, and league that demand more out of someone in power. The media is rightfully disinfecting the Donald Sterling situation by bringing his track record to light, but with his characterization labeled old hat, why is there such the uproar now? Perhaps it’s because the target was Magic Johnson. Magic is loved by the general public and is NBA royalty. For him to be involved in the Donald Sterling situation, even in a peripheral way, shows how all it takes it the right circumstances and the right name for someone to seek out the bread crumbs.
If the tone of Sterling’s comments sounds familiar to MMA fans, it’s not surprising. In fact, Dana White is likely one bad day away from Donald Sterling MMA fans, the UFC, and the general public.
Take, for example, the sport’s recent TRT scandal and how some basic poking and prodding by ESPN (as well as its megaphone) brought to light the unusual amount of TRT exemptions the Nevada state Athletic Commission issued to many MMA fighters. Within a week of the publication of the report, coincidentally, the athletic commission reversed its stance and banned TRT exemptions. The same day, the UFC adopted the commission’s policy. It was widely viewed as a step in the right direction that should have been done years before. However, it wasn’t until Georges St. Pierre went on record that part of his decision to step away from the sport was due in part to a lack of drug testing within the promotion that the issue gained traction for change within the UFC. In fact, weeks later Lorenzo Fertitta discussed the random drug testing efforts, a policy started with Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira, with SI’s Jeff Wagenheim. Said Fertitta, “In order for the program to be successful, it truly needs to be random and it needs to be pretty in-depth.” Much like Magic Johnson, sometimes all it takes is someone with name recognition to bring the issue front and center.
For those who cry that Ronda Rousey is the UFC’s most well-known and popular fighter, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest otherwise. And it isn’t pretty. It starts with Rousey’s comments about Cristiane Justino being an “it” instead of a woman. Subjectively, it’s a pretty classless thing to say, but had Rousey been the MMA superstar that transcends the sport that Dana White claims she is, the media would have (and should have) been quick to point out how such comments violate the UFC’s own policy for fighter conduct. Outside of the MMA community, the mainstream media didn’t pick up on this, partly because Rousey isn’t quite the draw the promotion considers her to be. Partly because the uproar from MMA fans went silent.
Last week, when White was asked about Rousey’s comments, instead of saying the UFC would look into the comments or discuss the comments with Rousey, White decided a better course of action would be to defend Rousey and further denigrate Justino by criticizing Justino’s looks and then pantomiming the way Justino walks in high heels. This is the face and voice of a fight promotion that is supposedly “neck and neck with soccer” on a global level. This was also just before he told reporters on hand to “Grow up,” because they had the audacity to ask if he had a comment on Rousey’s gender-bashing comments (comments that his fighters would normally get punished for according to the UFC’s own code of conduct).
In the past, the MMA media has held White’s feet to the fire regarding drug testing in MMA. They are also quick to point out any hypocrisy White may espouse in an effort to sell a fight. There were even a few media members who were repulsed by White’s recent comments and actions mocking Cristiane Justino. However, with all due respect to the solid MMA journalists covering the sport, White’s words and actions will not see any repercussions until the mainstream media picks up on these incidents or until a Jon Jones or a Cain Velasquez speaks up. Even in that instance, the coverage and vocalization about White’s comments being inappropriate and out of line only hold water if there are sanctions set up by the owners of the UFC. Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta need to be just as vocal. If Dana White’s comments and actions echo without a response from the owners, that speaks volumes louder than Dana White’s bloviations.
Make no mistake; Dana White has done remarkable things to help bring MMA and the UFC in particular to the public’s awareness. And, Dana White can sell a fight. He does it so well, it’s sometimes easier to chalk up his bluster and bravado as promoter-speak. He’s almost always on record, he accessible to the fans, and it’s clear, he will speak his mind when asked and when not asked. His openness is the very thing that UFC fans find so refreshing about the sport, and it’s something that is lacking in other major sports organizations. However, if Donald Sterling-gate teaches the public anything it’s that billionaires can be brought down by words—especially their own. Donald Sterling, unlike White, doesn’t have a social media presence or much interaction with the sports media, and he still managed to have his laundry aired out by a disgruntled mistress. If/when Dana White ultimately crosses the line, odds are it will likely be in the most public of forums and under the most public of circumstances. The only questions that remain are if transgender slurs and misogynistic comments don’t qualify as a tipping point that results in outrage, what does? And what does that say about MMA fans?