Friday, May 27, 2022

When It Comes To Free Speech, Are All Fighters Treated Equally?

Last week, UFC featherweight Bryce Mitchell appeared on Fox News. In a free-wheeling interview with Tucker Carlson, the 27-year-old opined on a number of conservative talking points, ranging from his refusal to fight in foreign wars, to the illegitimacy of the US Federal Reserve, before delivering an ominous warning to viewers at home.

“Evil has took over this nation and we ain’t afraid of it. And we’re ready to fight,” declared the Arkansas native.

Such sentiment no doubt fell on sympathetic ears among Fox News’ staunchly conservative viewers, and perhaps, many MMA fans, too. But for some, ‘Thug Nasty’s’ appearance on the network seems to highlight a glaring double standard when it comes to athletes speaking out on political issues. 

Fox News is, after all, a network that demanded Lebron James ‘shut up and dribble’ after it deemed the Lakers star guilty of “talking politics” during a 2018 interview with ESPN. Mitchell, who in media appearances leading up to his Fox News interview committed that same supposed sin of mixing politics and sport, not only failed to incur the network’s righteous anger but was invited onto its airwaves for a soft-ball, primetime interview.

This double standard, it seems, has also played out within the MMA community, as scores of fans rallied to Mitchell’s defense in recent weeks. His statements, no matter how outrageous, are a righteous expression of free speech, they’ve argued.

But is this same right to free speech afforded to fighters with whom fans may not agree with? When fighters voice political beliefs considered left of the aisle, do fans defend their right to do so under the guise of free speech, or are they told to shut up and fight?

Bryce Mitchell

The Free Speech Absolutism Of The UFC

MMA prides itself as one of the last bastions of free speech in what many consider an increasingly censorious national discourse. No more is this ideal present than in the UFC, where controversial opinions that attract censure or punitive repercussions in other sports routinely take safe haven.

We’ve seen UFC President Dana White turn a blind eye to what some considered racist comments made by Colby Covington. So too controversial statements made by Sean Strickland, who in the past few months has publicly asserted that having a gay son would deem him a failure as a man, in between declaring his murderous fantasies

“In this insanely politically correct world we’re living in, this is one place that is not,” UFC President Dana White said of his promotion last year.

Woodley Covington
PHOTO: GETTY

Mitchell is just the latest in a long line of UFC fighters to thoroughly test his employer’s commitment to free speech. In Mitchell’s defense, some of his statements have simply been the declaration of legitimate, albeit fringe conservative beliefs. Others, however, like Mitchell’s claim that the 2017 Las Vegas shooting was staged by the US government, were in the realm of Alex Jonesian lunacy.

The UFC, of course, didn’t censor nor rebuke Mitchell for his more controversial, and to some, offensive claims. And true to the promotion’s commitment to free speech, it has historically afforded the same liberty to those fighters who espouse causes and beliefs on the other end of the political spectrum. But can the same be said for fight fans?

When Tyron Woodley Turned Political Activist

At the pre-fight press conference of his 2020 bout with Colby Covington, Tyron Woodley decided to make what some in the MMA world considered a controversial political statement. Wearing a Trump-inspired cap that read “Make Racists Catch The Fade Again,” the former welterweight champ answered every question with some variation of “because black lives matter.”

Woodley in this case, much like Mitchell has in recent weeks, used his platform as a sportsperson to voice his political beliefs. But unlike Mitchell, or Donald Trump supporting Covington, the former welterweight champ was excoriated online for unashamedly mixing politics with sport. Calls for Woodley to simply ‘shut up and fight’ were many, and those defending his right to express his political beliefs under the guise of free speech—like in the case of Mitchell—were few.

Addressing The Free Speech Double Standard

Unlike more mainstream sports, whose governing bodies and, to an extent, fans, display a left-of-center bias, MMA generally skews toward the right. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Conservative opinions, in the marketplace of ideas, are as legitimate as progressive ones.

But if MMA fans pride themselves as fierce defenders of free speech—a right exalted in mostly conservative circles—then surely this ideal must be consistently applied to all fighters, regardless of their political persuasion.

Perhaps the words of Mitchell, as spoken during his recent Fox News interview, ring true for any fighter who enters the realm of political debate—no matter where they sit on the political spectrum.

“For me to be able to talk about something greater than fighting is more purposeful than anything I can talk about related to fighting,” Mitchell said. “And so I’m grateful to be able to do that. And a lot of people say, ‘Shut up and fight.’ Well, you know what? If you don’t want to hear that shit, turn off the TV and watch the fight. You don’t have to watch my interviews. Turn them off then.”

Bryce Mitchell
Bryce Mitchell (Image Credit: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
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