Are MMA Promotions Headed Toward Lawsuits from Former Fighters?

Patrick StraubContributor IIIMay 24, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 16: UFC President Dana White speaks during a press conference promoting UFC 145: Jones v Evans at Philips Arena on February 16, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Currently, the National Football league is facing over 80 lawsuits involving more than 2,200 former players alleging the league did not do enough to prevent long-term damage to their brains brought on by concussions sustained during their playing days.  Football, and specifically the NFL, brought this disaster on itself.  The sport of MMA will not.

I love football. I played the game for most of my life, and I love watching the NFL.  I proudly admit it is my favorite sport on this planet, with a significant lead over any other—including MMA.

All that said, until recently, I was disgusted with how the NFL had dealt with the issue of concussions and how it disrespected the blood, sweat and tears put into the game by not giving retired players proper care for their post-retirement health issues.  

I say "until recently" because due to the endless amount of lawsuits facing them, the NFL’s hand has been aggressively forced, and they ultimately have begun to take the necessary actions to address all the aforementioned issues plaguing the future of their institution. 

But the issue of head trauma obviously exists in sports other than football, and any competition that requires violent collisions between its athletes is on notice.  Its participants, at every level and in every facet, need to take the proper steps to insure that the same outrage that the NFL is facing from its former employees doesn’t become a part of its culture. 

Which brings us to mixed martial arts. 

Combat sports, perhaps more than any other outside of football, will be (and should be) under the most glaring microscope moving forward, as more information is gained and brought forth by those in the medical profession who are studying this unfortunate phenomenon.  Sports that fit into this niche encourage and promote vicious knockouts and raise the status of its participants who defy modern-day logic by wading into battle to provide the most thrilling fights viewers can hope to see. 

For any fight promotion to ignore the studies and information being output by the media and the medical profession and to brush aside the reality the NFL is facing with all its lawsuits would be to blatantly disregard the manner in which the NFL got itself into trouble in the first place and doom itself to historical repetition. 

UFC President Dana White was asked about this issue at the pre-fight press conference for UFC 140 in December of this past year and raised poignant examples of how the UFC deals with concussions as opposed to how it’s done in other professional sports leagues:

“One of the things we’re definitely out in front of is fighter safety,” said White who went on to talk about the importance of dealing with the problem before it even arises. “When you take two healthy athletes, you go in you get them medically cleared and checked out the way that you’re supposed to, you don’t cut any corners, you go overboard on it…and then you get them checked up after the fight is over, it’s 100% a safe sport.  When you go overboard on safety, things always turn out alright.”

I’ve had the benefit of being up close during UFC pre-fight and post-fight medicals for fighters, and I can assure you Dana White speaks the truth.  Fighters go through a rigorous clearance process before being allowed in the Octagon and a thorough examination after they come out.

Perhaps nobody better exemplifies that than UFC welterweight Thiago Alves, who was slated to tangle with Jon Fitch at UFC 111 in March of 2010. 

During his pre-fight medical exam, a CT scan found that Alves had an irregularity in his brain known as an arteriovenous malformation, which is an abnormal connection between the veins and arteries.  It was said that Alves’ condition was career-threatening and the wrong blow in a fight could cause it to be life-threatening.  Alves was pulled from the card, and potential disaster was averted.

It should be noted that in the case of Alves, it was the New Jersey State Athletic Commission that prohibited Alves from competing, not the UFC. 

However, Dana White and the UFC publicly supported the commission’s decision and acted quickly to get Alves the proper neurological care, so he could get healthy and resume his career.  It’s a prime example of the UFC taking appropriate action in an important moment, when a fighter’s life and long-term health hung in the balance.

It is incumbent on MMA promotions to work with each state’s athletic commissions to bring these medical standards forward when sanctioning events within state boundaries.

From what I can gather, that is generally done and done well among the more well-known fight promotions such as UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator, where no significant head trauma has yet to occur. 

The interest of the state’s athletic commission is to prevent the accusation of negligence on their part in the event a serious head injury does occur within their boundaries. 

We see that, after almost every MMA card, fighters are issued medical suspensions.  Some are as little as a week; some are up to 60 days and longer.  At UFC 145, Miguel Torres was knocked out stiff and subsequently suspended 60 days, in addition to needing a CT scan and doctor’s clearance to return to action. 

Precautions like that are the norm, and so long as both hands continue to work together (the promotion and the athletic commission), the sport can remain clean in this respect. 

Another important part of the process is the role that the referee plays in an MMA fight—and specifically, the elimination of the standing eight-count that is employed by boxing.  In the same UFC 140 press conference from which Dana White is quoted above, Frank Mir was on hand and gave his take on the issue, stating that he feels very good about how concussions are treated in his sport compared with others:

“We’ve learned, actually, that MMA has already been on the right course.  The fact that we don’t have the standing eight-count, because they’ve already proven the initial concussion [isn’t the most detrimental], you see it in hockey and football, as long as you pull the player at that point…that it’s the secondary concussions that come after that incurs brain damage.”

Mir’s point speaks to the long-term health risks that athletes, and specifically MMA fighters, face. 

He is correct in his assessment that secondary concussions, especially when occurring immediately after the initial concussion, are known to have greater impact on long-term brain damage.  If no standing eight-count is in effect and if MMA referees put a stop to the action when one fighter is clearly thrown for a loop, it eradicates the chance for a secondary concussion to occur.    

The real test of how well the UFC and others have done will come 10 and 20 years down the line when today’s fighters have long retired and are embroiled in other ventures in their lives. 

Will they encounter memory loss, reduced motor skills, or severe depression? 

Will the UFC or other promotions be forced to answer for the untimely and suddenly continuous suicides from former fighters?  Will the study of the brains of deceased fighters turn up the same shocking results that are being found in deceased football players?  Lastly, will any former fighters or their families feel justified in bringing suit against the UFC or other promotions due to negative health symptoms later in life allegedly brought on by their time as fighters? 

We simply don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but there is already evidence to suggest that things are being done the right way. 

In “going overboard” with medical clearances for fighters, the UFC and other promotions are protecting themselves against future lawsuits or accusations from former fighters.  Should a lawsuit suddenly be brought forth at some point down the road, promotions can point to the rigorous testing in place for fighters both before and after their fights and the attention and care paid to a concussed fighter.

MMA promotions are treading treacherous waters at a dangerous time in sports. 

Concussions were once worn as a badge of honor by those who could coax themselves into jumping up as quickly as possible and hopping back in the arena to compete.  No mind was paid to the potential long-term risks, and fans were forever endeared to the “durable” athlete. 

Today’s sports landscape has changed the line of thinking completely.

Any league, organization or promotion that doesn’t heed the evidence mounted against them and doesn’t subsequently take the necessary steps to protect their participants from long-term health damage is opening itself to an eventual onslaught of lawsuits and catastrophic public relations damage that could very well endanger not simply its own reputation but also the future of the sport it represents.