The Big Picture: A Safe Space for Racists

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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There were few surprises in the UFC Fight Night 178 main event between rivals Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington on Saturday in Las Vegas.

Woodley, a former welterweight champion who had looked like a husk of himself in back-to-back losses to Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns, looked exactly as bad as he did in those two drubbings. As it turned out, Woodley’s habit of backing into the fence and barely throwing any punches did not work out too well against Covington, a former interim champion who wins via relentless pressure and high-volume offense.

It was also not much of a surprise when Covington got on the microphone after the fight and trotted out his tried-and-true MAGA schtick, nor was it unexpected when that schtick careened into unvarnished racism. To Covington, a renowned economics expert educated by a variety of Facebook memes, Woodley is a communist and a Marxist, and Breonna Taylor—who was killed by police in Kentucky in a botched raid while she was sleeping in her apartment—is a “lifelong criminal.”

Surely it was pure coincidence when Covington later attempted to insult Usman, a Nigerian-American, by asking if the champion’s “little tribe” sent smoke signals to congratulate him. Yes, that backwater country of Nigeria which—let me check my notes here—has only suffered 1,100 COVID-19 deaths in a population of nearly 200 million people. Nothing like 200,000 patriotic body bags to Keep America Great.

The predictable streak continued when the hordes of fans who snivel and moan about keeping politics out of sports—usually in response to athletes who speak up against police brutality that disproportionately affects black and brown communities—were dead silent about Covington’s flagrantly partisan presidential endorsement. It makes sense: Using sports as a platform to bring attention to social injustice is political and very bad, but campaigning for a sitting president at a sporting event is not political and very good.

Sports are necessarily and inescapably political. They would not exist in a politics-free vacuum even if you wanted them to, because the athletes and owners and everyone in between are real people who exist in the real world. At this point, though, that line of thinking is hardly worth going into, because nobody really has a problem with politics in sports. Fans who are against the government inflicting violence on American citizens do not claim to have an issue with it, and people who do not care about State-sponsored executions do not seem to mind when Covington repeatedly discusses his political beliefs during fight week, or when President Trump or his family make appearances at Ultimate Fighting Championship events, or when UFC President Dana White speaks at the Republican National Convention. It’s almost like they only care about the politicization of sports when they’re forced to confront ideas with which they disagree—when they are thrust out of their ideological safe spaces.

Isn’t this all just a difference of opinion, though? Just some heated words between bitter rivals and a little bit of good old-fashioned fight promotion? As White asked in the post-fight presser, “Who’s more about free speech than we are?” He makes a good point: Nothing says “we support free speech” like blackballing journalists and fighters for saying things you don’t like. Never mind that. Hypocrisy and spin are nothing new here in the world’s most overtly politicized sport. Just ask the fighters who support a president who has actively obstructed higher pay and more equitable treatment for fighters, or the People who love America’s constitutional republic so much that they giddily cheer a president who wants as few people to vote as possible and refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

The point is that freedom of speech isn’t entirely free. It certainly does not mean you can say whatever you want without consequences—Reebok has already rebuked Covington’s remarks—nor does it mean you can legally say anything you want. In the same way America doesn’t have totally free markets (those damn Washington elites won’t let factories hire 8-year-olds anymore), you can’t lie under oath or call in a bomb threat to an airport or verbally harass people. Absolute freedom doesn’t exist, and we’re better off because of it.

Whether Covington is a true-blue racist or simply cosplaying as one, it doesn’t really matter. You can only pretend to be something you’re not for so long before it becomes who you really are. Likewise, whether you think his racism is fine or protected free speech isn’t really relevant. What matters is that the sport is worse off for tolerating it and for courting weirdo racists who care more about seeing a white guy beat up a black guy than appreciating the skill, technique and otherworldly grit it takes to be a professional fighter. This shouldn’t be controversial.

Without question, Covington is one of the best fighters on the planet. He deserves whatever praise and respect his in-cage achievements merit, and it’s a shame his persona has overshadowed his abilities when the latter is so much more compelling. Despite his undeniable talent and toughness, as long as Covington maintains this posture of unapologetic racism and belligerent idiocy, the sport of mixed martial arts would be better off without him in it.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.

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