From Rampage to Role Model: Finding Best Practices

Alarming Lack of Action

By Luke Thomas Dec 26, 2008
In the NFL, New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is penalized during a game for making snow angels in the end zone after a touchdown.

In the NHL, Dallas Stars center Sean Avery is benched and ultimately dismissed from the team for referring to former girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert as “sloppy seconds” now that she is dating another NHL player.

In the UFC, former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson temporarily loses grip on reality due to self-induced dementia from extreme dehydration and is ultimately charged with two felony and four misdemeanor counts related to evading police, hit-and-run and reckless driving. After being evaluated by law enforcement and medical authorities (and re-evaluated after another strange episode) Jackson is ultimately released on his own cognizance. Despite this being Jackson’s second dementia-related event due to self-induced dehydration and his actions threatening the lives of pedestrians and other highway passengers (to say nothing of his own), the UFC neither requires that Jackson seek further, long-term medical attention to address underlying issues nor penalizes the fighter for utterly reckless and dangerous behavior.

Which one of these is not like the other?

While Jackson is innocent until proven guilty before the law, whatever legal legging Jackson’s team of lawyers decide to stand on bears little relevance to the very serious issue of personal misconduct and professional image. However, unlike players in the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA, Jackson will likely face no punitive action from the UFC either before or after any potential legal conviction. For anyone concerned about the appearance of MMA before the world of the mainstream, the lack of any action by UFC brass -- either punitive for endangerment or medical by ensuring their employee has addressed mental health concerns -- is alarming.

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Say what you wish about
Dana White, but he cares
deeply for his fighters.
The villain, however, is neither Dana White nor Rampage Jackson. Whatever ails Jackson is a medical condition and not one of immorality. White, for all his faults, cares deeply for his fighters and particularly for Rampage. Clearly the actions White took are a function of the intimacy of their relationship and are likely what he sees as effective laissez-faire.

Instead, the real culprit is the strange predicament of the sport and its chief organization: an odd juxtaposition of a celebrated but controversially violent sport dancing with mainstream attention. Other sports and their leagues of similar or larger significance have celebrated employees with miscreant or troubling behavior, but they also have the contractual institutions, legal precedence and expectation of professionalism that the UFC clearly lacks.

All of the other major sports leagues employ a variety of methods to police the ranks of their players. Most use a collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players union. That agreement is essentially a labor contract between an employer and in this case, a players union. Insofar as punitive action and discipline are concerned, the agreement identifies adjudication procedure or penalties in the event of league-sanctioned punishment as well as enumerates the rights of players to appeal rulings, obtain information and purse appeals.

What’s notable about the major sports leagues, however, is not the exhaustive coverage of any potentialities in the collective bargaining agreements but rather the actions of the individual teams themselves. Virtually every (if not all) major sports team employs unique and individualized rules for team conduct and player expectation. The extent to which those teams’ expectations differ is difficult to gauge given that they are not for public consumption. But the principle remains the same: You, the player, represent this team, this sport and this league; you are in the public eye and must act accordingly; you are revered by millions and represent the highest ideals of professional conduct to children; we, the team, require you, the player, to act appropriately and according to the guidelines we provide to you.

In fact, the NBA goes one step further and adopts a fan code of conduct. The NBA created a set of rules that doesn’t prohibit fan vocalization but certainly places a clear ceiling on what can be said and how loudly fans can say it. In a sport like MMA where the fan base has a clear blue-collar tone, a fan code of conduct could go a long way toward reducing the ridiculous requests for immediate stand-ups or face-punching contests often heard at live events.

The point here should be clear: None of this is intended to be reflexively anti-Zuffa. In fact, managed expectations and forgiveness for Zuffa are perfectly in order. The two main ingredients required to build a sport and its infrastructure are time and a hugely wide swathe of experiences. Real players in any business need to learn the tricks of the trade not by having preternatural knowledge but by wisdom borne out of difficult decisions and well-executed solutions.
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