UFC's Anheuser-Busch Challenge: The Difficulty of Changing Inherent Behavior

Anthony GannonContributor IIIMay 2, 2012

LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 15:  UFC President Dana White arrives at UFC, Famous Stars and Straps and New Era's 'The Magic Party' at XS the nightclub on February 15, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

With the recent revelation that beer giant Anheuser-Busch was displeased with some UFC fighters' remarks, perpetuating the image of the organization as a hotbed for sexism and homophobia, the attention turns to the organization to police its fighters.

Anheuser-Busch issued a statement (via Advertising Age) saying, “We’ve communicated to the UFC our displeasure with certain remarks made by some of its fighters, and they have promised to address this. If the incidents continue, we will act.”

This should serve as a wake-up call for the UFC. For years, it's operated under the belief that fighting is inherently different; that it’s supposed to be edgy, and it’s accepted that the athletes are cut from a different cloth.

It didn’t want its guys to be viewed as typical athletes. After all, that was part of the appeal.

UFC fighters were more approachable than the mega-million-dollar superstars who rule the traditional sports, because they were seen as everyman heroes who use everyman language.

Everyman language may not have lucid consequences in the locker room—or the living room, when a bunch of guys get together and watch a UFC event—but once that language and behavior gets to the boardroom, it’s a whole other ballgame.

The UFC wanted mainstream. Well, this is what mainstream looks like. It’s a politically correct netherworld of dollars where the biggest rule is “do not offend.”  

You don’t have to like it.

Indeed, many people are not shy in expressing their exasperation regarding our politically correct culture. But the reality is that advertisers are businesses. They offer their products to the masses. And the masses are well-organized entities with special-interest groups for everything from animal rights to “Free Burma.”  

Basically, it is what it is.

And it’s senseless to complain about something that we have absolutely no ability to change.  

So, when athletes make rape jokes on Twitter, it doesn’t matter if they’re “just joking.” Leaving aside, for a moment, how repugnant it is to joke about something as serious as rape, it reflects poorly on them and the UFC because people are watching now.

All of those special-interest groups are watching, just waiting for them to slip up.  

It’s a culture shock. Not long ago, MMA was fringe.

Just last year, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan came under fire for having some less-than-flattering things to say about MMA writer Maggie Hendricks on the Underground. Before that, Joe was in hot water for calling another writer, Tomas Rios, a “f**got.”  

Even Dana White would brush such instances under the rug, generalizing the excuse that this is MMA, not knitting school. As if being “MMA” is a blanket excuse to rationalize jejune behavior.  

Hardly surprising, considering White himself came under the gun when he issued a scathing, expletive-stuffed video-blog tirade aimed at MMA reporter Loretta Hunt.

This is an endemic culture in the UFC that is going to take some time to change. 

You can enact policies, force sensitivity training, etc., but the fact remains that changing human behavior is not an easy task, even more so when it’s behavior that is ingrained into men from early childhood. 

As kids, guys are groomed to behave a certain way. Even if their parents show them the right way—be responsible, be a gentleman, etc.—they’re still taught that they must be tough, and tough means not being a pansy.

Derogatory terms for gay are used not so much in a literal sexual sense, but more as a reference to weakness. So boys learn to throw around a word that may be somewhat harmless in intent, but has very significant meaning in the real world, especially the world of corporate sponsorships.  

Normalcy breeds apathy, and trying to change decades of societal normalcy—no matter how unacceptable it may be in the real world—is a challenge.  

Fighters are alpha males times a million. Most guys try to portray a “tough” image, even if they’re anything but. While most do not need to thrust their toughness down people’s throats to justify themselves, some do.

As with everything, the actions of the few illuminate onto the masses.

For its part, the UFC has reacted in an appropriate manner, responding to Advertising Age about Anheuser-Busch’s concerns:

With over 425 athletes on our roster, there have unfortunately been instances where a couple athletes have made insensitive or inappropriate comments. We don’t condone this behavior, and in no way is it reflective of the company or its values.

…. unlike most other sports leagues, we encourage our athletes to engage online. It is part of our company culture, and whenever you are at the forefront of a trend or initiative, it comes with its own pitfalls. We will continue to embrace social media while looking for better ways to stay in front of the issues. This includes a mandate for our athletes to attend sensitivity training and a seminar on proper use of social media.

That’s a statement right out of the public-relations handbook. And it’s exactly what should have been said. But it means nothing unless the UFC is serious about policing itself.

No one is saying that the UFC and its fighters need to be corporate robots. MMA fans certainly don’t want that. But, a little discretion will go a long way toward easing the transition from fringe to mainstream.

The UFC wanted mainstream. Now it’s time to play by the rules. It's not about being politically correct. It's about being responsible.