There is no denying that in these modern times, athletes are considered heroes and icons to thousands, sometimes millions, of people. Indeed, even compared to the idols we make of celebrities and musicians, athletes remain our anointed heroes. They often come with back stories that are the stuff of movies (sometimes literally) with tales of overcoming poverty, racism, broken homes, and a variety of other hard knocks. And most of all, athletes remind us of the human potential. They show us the human form in perfection. They dazzle us with their almost super-human abilities. And it’s thrilling drama.
These very humble origin stories make athletes intoxicating heroes. And that’s why they must be held accountable when they stumble or fall. They must be made an example, because they are the what we wish we could be on our best of days.
And we’ve seen that play out in almost every major sport:
- Football star Michael Vick‘s animal abuse
- Basketball star Kobe Bryant’s recent hate speech directed at a ref
- Baseball’s Mel Hall is currently serving a sentence of 45 years for rape and sexual assault
- In fact, see a list of crimes by pro athletes across multiple sports here
Surely, in huge professional sports clubs like the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, there will be a few bad apples or bad scenarios from time to time. What matters is how those events are handled. And whether it’s because of a sense of right and wrong or merely a glance at the bottom line, major sports franchises, players, and organizations are looking at the issues of hate speech, sexual assault, and even bullying with a critical eye. Last year, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that professional athletes are role models and that hate speech cannot be tolerated.
The fact that professional sports organizations are publicly saying that hate speech is wrong is important. And meaningful. This is the responsibility part of being a hero.
And this is why it’s time for the UFC to step up.
In November 2011 I joined the fight to get the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to enact a code of conduct, following a rape joke tweet by fighter Forrest Griffin. But since then, there’s been a spate of offensive tweets and public comments joking about rape and the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. Meanwhile, they have had what can almost be called a legacy of anti-gay public remarks and outbursts.
The UFC has signed a reported $700 million deal with FOX Sports and will premier in prime time this year. Their ubiquity is a sign that they are entering the Big Leagues of sports. I can’t turn on the TV or drive down a freeway without seeing some sign of the UFC. So it is time that they act like they are in the Big Leagues and enact a code of conduct, similar to those of other major sports organizations including the NFL and NBA.
As the survivor of sexual violence, this cause is very personal for me.
You see, UFC fighters are rewarded for the popularity of their tweets and the effectiveness of their use of social media. There are monetary bonuses, in fact. So, when Forrest Griffin, Miguel Torres and Rashad Evans joked about rape — each of them making direct or indirect illusions to the Penn State scandal — it is more than just offensive (although that would be enough). It is as if the UFC is rewarding the behavior of perpetrators of sexual violence. (Interestingly, Griffin was rewarded as one of the most creative users of twitter!) When Rashad Evans joked that he was going to, “put my hands on you worse than that dude did to them other kids at Penn State,” well, that was like joking about the man who put his hands all over my body. Look me in the eye, Mr. Evans, Mr. Griffin, Mr. Torres, and yes, even Mr. UFC President Dana White, and tell me how it’s funny that a man put his hands all over me when I was a child.
The only way we change attitudes about sexual violence is through public discourse and to act as a society to stop it. And there is evidence that awareness campaigns and calls for greater societal standards does change minds — just look at the evolution of “wife beating” to domestic violence and the Violence Against Women Act. In fact, VAWA has been helpful on the sexual violence front, too. (Report, PDF)
Joking about rape and off-color remarks about sexual violence are not only offensive, but they are deeply hurtful to those who have survived such experiences. It can be a trigger for survivors to feel a whole host of difficult emotions, including anger, sadness, depression, shame, and frustration. For society as a whole, it is a terrible marker for the pervasiveness of rape culture and its bullying effect on the hearts and minds of women, men, girls, boys, transgendered individuals, LGBT people and more. Joking about rape and sexual abuse is an admission that taking away someone’s power is not only “funny” but somehow acceptable and even encouraged.
If you feel like me, that it’s time the UFC grew up and enacted a code of conduct, please take a moment now and sign this petition.