Opinion: Loose Lips Sink Ships

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The sudden dismissal of featherweight prospect Yair Rodriguez from the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster sent shockwaves through the mixed martial arts community. While Rodriguez’s lopsided loss to Frankie Edgar did no favors to his stock among the promotion, he is still a recognizable name with a knack for high-flying striking who can keep more than just the average hardcore fan engaged in the action. So when the Twitter remarks surrounding a proposed and quickly scrapped contest with Zabit Magomedsharipov at UFC 227 this August were followed by the Mexican fighter being unceremoniously booted, there were questions that needed to be answered.

At the post-fight press conference for Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 130 in Liverpool, UFC President Dana White answered at least one of those questions. Confirming that Rodriguez had turned down fight offers, White’s response was telling. “When I call you and offer you a fight,” White said, “you should probably take it.” He could not have been any clearer: do what I say or face the consequences. While the public face and part-owner of the promotion should have power over the operations of the company and its employees, there is one fundamental problem: Rodriguez was not an employee. In fact, none of the approximately 550 fighters currently under contract with the UFC are employees; they are independent contractors. As an independent contractor, Rodriguez had a right to refuse a job.

This is far from a secret. Much attention has been devoted to the employment status of the roster as the UFC has continued to reach for more control over its fighters. As a result, the debate has reached peaks several times. When Fedor Emelianenko was being sought after by the promotion, a big sticking point was the company’s refusal to allow him to compete in combat sambo. A true independent contractor would be able to take jobs with other companies without any exclusivity issues. Fighters wouldn’t need special permission from the promotion to engage in other combat sports. When Reebok entered its partnership with the UFC for athlete apparel, controversy ensued. The Reebok deal effectively leveled a fighter sponsorship market that had already been heavily damaged by the entrance fee the UFC had required before allowing fighters to wear corporate logos in the cage. Independent contractors are not supposed to be subject to company uniforms, with safety equipment being the exception. Outside of MMA gloves, a protective cup, mouth guard, and the bounds of apparel allowed by athletic commissions, fighters should be permitted to wear what they choose. Dictating what fighters wear for press engagements, weigh-ins, and walkouts would be off-limits to the company as well. The UFC’s policy has shown a rather reckless attitude towards this boundary.

White’s words have reflected that same flippancy towards the delicate nature of the situation. If someone were unaware of the pending anti-trust lawsuit, White’s unapologetic and dismissive attitude surrounding Rodriguez and his exit from the UFC might be seen as nothing more than tough talk from a promoter. If one were uninformed about the pending litigation regarding the recent handling of women’s bantamweight and fighter’s union advocate Leslie Smith, this would simply be another occasion where the outspoken promoter spoke plainly and without restraint. However, even a casual glance at White’s comments through the lens of these two ongoing legal issues reveals something much more. His words have the potential to contribute to what could be an impending collapse of the house of cards.

To continue to enjoy the tax benefits of classifying its athlete roster as independent contractors, the UFC has to keep up at least the appearance of respecting the restrictions of that status. This would entail handling issues that border that line with more care. That means not enacting wide-ranging policies, USADA and Reebok for example, without the input of a reasonable portion of the roster. It would mean increasing overall fighter pay and altering the current bonus structure to appease the roster and quell as much discontent as possible. It would also mean keeping White and his infamous communication skills in check. While the actual policies and procedures to which the company adheres are much more important than words spoken at a press conference, the speaker is very important. When in front of a microphone -- especially, but not exclusively, in his capacity as UFC President and co-owner -- White’s words are the words of the company. It’s hard to imagine that ahead of Smith’s hearing, where a court will rule on the employee vs. contractor debate, UFC’s parent company Endeavor wants to go on record with something that directly contradicts their efforts to maintain their legal protections. As the anti-trust suit carries on, it can’t be in Endeavor’s best interest to have the figurehead of the UFC make public statements that are begging to be used against them.

The UFC’s owners have a lot working against them in the future. In the midst of the celebrations of the newly announced $300 million annual deal with ESPN, there is a lot for White to blow his “brains out for three days celebrating,” as he recently put it. However, trouble appears to be right over the horizon. There is a noticeable and increasingly vocal contingent of fighters who aren’t content with the company. More fighters are jumping ship, standing their ground, and shunning the notion of being a company man if it doesn’t benefit their bottom line. There are also potential game-changing legal matters that will come to a head soon. That trouble will only be complicated by loose lips. The UFC and anyone chosen to represent it in any official capacity should be very careful with their words. It’s very possible that those words will come back to haunt them.
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