As it turns out, it isn't always good to be the king.
On Tuesday, March 27, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal for nine months, fined him 30% of his $80,000 fight purse, and stripped him of his $15,000 win bonus for failing a post-fight drug test following his Jan 7 fight against Lorenz Larkin, as well as failing to properly disclose information regarding his supplements and knee injury on a medical questionnaire.
Though just two days old, this story has been broken down, discussed, rehashed, and assessed from just about all possible angles. Nary a soul, save perhaps Lawal himself, believes he was unfairly punished by the NSAC.
Rather, the controversy stems from a seemingly innocuous question, asked some 10 minutes into the hearing, from NSAC commissioner Pat Lundvall (the audio can be found below, at around minute 6:55, courtesy of MMA Weekly):
"Can you understand English? Can you read English?"
Perceiving Lundvall's question as not only disrespectful, but racist, Lawal later posted a tweet (which has since been deleted) saying he felt Lundvall was "a racist bitch in asking [him] if [he] can read or speak english."
Shortly thereafter, Strikeforce announced Lawal had been cut from their roster, sparking the aforementioned discussion and rehashing of the situation by MMA media and fans alike.
The various reactions to this situation that I've encountered all seem to generally agree that Lawal's NSAC punishment was just, his reaction was foolhardy, and that Lundvall's question was maybe a bit rude, if not downright inappropriate.
One notable exception, that I take particular issue with, is Kevin Iole's reaction. In a piece for Yahoo Sports entitled "Media had it all wrong: Commissioner wasn't racist and Lawal got what he deserved," Iole presents the case that Lundvall was simply doing her job, building a case during questioning about why Lawal failed to accurately fill out the pre-fight medical questionnaire:
Lundvall's reason for asking Lawal if he read and understood English is what lawyers do when they're building a case during questioning. She was boxing him in and leaving him no room. When he said yes, she asked about why he didn't disclose the knee injury on the questionnaire he filled out at the weigh-in and why he didn't mention he was taking something for it.
It had zero racist intent. She was trying to expose that Lawal hadn't been forthcoming with the commission until he was forced to do so.
Iole's point is well taken. Lundvall was attempting to box Lawal in. But that does not make it right, nor does it make it appropriate.
The correct time for a question meant to determine language fluency is at the beginning of a trial or hearing. It's a common and accepted practice during a plea litany to ensure the defendant understands English and doesn't need a translator in order to adequately partake in the legal proceedings. Determining one's understanding of the language being spoken needs to occur before questions are asked, not during.
Rolling your eyes, taking an annoyed tone, and asking this question 10 minutes into the NSAC proceedings, when the defendant—a college graduate, I should add—has been responding to English, in English, is purely incendiary and unprofessional. She may as well have said, "Are you an idiot?"
As for whether or not the question can be perceived as racist, well, that's another issue altogether.
I am a white male. I have never been the victim of racism. By all reasonable standards, I am not a qualified arbiter for what is, or is not, racist. For me, or any other person who hasn't themselves faced racism, to say that Lawal is incorrect in his perception of Lundvall's question is out of line.
If someone that clearly knows I speak English asked me if I spoke English, I wouldn't assume they were attacking my intellect based upon my race. But I've never had my intellect questioned because of my race. For other reasons, sure, but never because of my race.
Lawal explains in an interview with Bloody Elbow—where he also comments that Lundvall rolled her eyes—that this has happened to him many times. It's through that experiential lens which Lawal interpreted Lundvall's question. It doesn't excuse his reaction, which was unprofessional in itself, but who are we to deem his feelings incorrect?
Regardless of where you happen to stand on this issue, I think all can agree on this point: If Lundvall's question—and, more importantly, the timing and way in which she asked it—was completely acceptable and ordinary, this wouldn't be a discussion.
Res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself.