The Ultimate Fighting Championship hosted its first pay-per-view event with fans in attendance in over a year, UFC 261, on Saturday, April 24. The event was held at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., partially due to the Florida state government’s rescinding of policies implemented during the coronavirus pandemic limiting in-person gatherings and live attendance at public events.
The fact that a sellout crowd was packed into an indoor arena while the state averages over 6,000 daily Covid-19 cases is disheartening to say the least. The promotion has admittedly been one of the better major sports organizations at implementing stringent Covid-19 testing protocols during the pandemic, but implementing similar measures for fans feels untenable. The addition of an “Assumption of Risk” clause to tickets to UFC 261 that specifically cites attendees’ risk of contracting Covid-19 by attending the event speaks to such.
But the UFC’s return to Florida also coincides with the state government’s push to implement discriminatory laws that would ban trans girls and women from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity. A bill that passed through the Florida House last week, HB 1475, drew heightened criticism for the inclusion of a provision that would allow a challenge to a student-athlete’s gender identity to be resolved by an examination of their “reproductive anatomy.”
Though the Florida Senate amended its version of the bill, SB 2012, to remove that language and reports now say it is unlikely to be put to a vote before the state’s legislative session ends on April 30, the silence of major sports organizations regarding such legislation rings incredibly loud. Especially as similar bills have been introduced in more than 30 states, plenty of which are home to professional sports teams.
The UFC’s big return to events with live crowds this weekend has placed it in the spotlight regarding that collective silence. In a video on his personal YouTube channel, Bloody Elbow’s Trent Reinsmith highlighted the UFC’s turning a blind eye to the trans-exclusionary bills while the company promotes itself as a proponent of LGBTQ inclusion.
“This is not going to stop the UFC from going to Florida or any state that has a law like this. And the reason is because the UFC doesn’t really give a shit about this. It pays lip service to it during Pride month. They’ll have their rainbow shirts and they’ll act like they give a shit, but if you ask them … if they’re going to do anything about this bill, if they’re going to say ‘we’re not going to go to a state that has an anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans law. We’re not going to go there because it doesn’t represent our morals.’ Well, c’mon now. We know the UFC doesn’t have many morals whatsoever. The silence on this, because it just happened, is incredible. It’s deafening.”
The “rainbow shirts” Reinsmith refers to in the video are Pride-themed shirts emblazoned with the phrase “We are all fighters” in rainbow colors that the UFC has sold since 2016 with the proceeds benefitting LGBTQ organizations. The initiative is commendable, but flies in the face of its continued relationships with anti-LGBTQ governmental bodies in the United Arab Emirates and Chechnya.
But even its pro-LGBTQ optics have been exclusionary to trans populations. The UFC features multiple out fighters within its women’s division, including UFC double champion Amanda Nunes and Jessica Andrade, who challenged UFC Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 261, and got rag-dolled, according to Bloody Elbow. However, prominent figures within the organization haven’t been as welcoming to trans fighters of any gender identity.
UFC president Dana White, UFC announcer Joe Rogan and former UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey made incredibly transphobic comments toward former MMA fighter Fallon Fox in 2013. Rogan has come under fire again recently for transphobic comments on his popular Spotify-exclusive podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
In honor of PRIDE month, the UFC will be offering its “We Are All Fighters” t-shirts with 100% of the profits benefitting @GLAAD.— UFC (@ufc) June 6, 2019
Visit https://t.co/2DqWrpDNhZ to get your shirts today! ️ #WeAreAllFighters #PrideMonth pic.twitter.com/bwri2HxvqO
According to Bloody Elbow, Rogan’s recent comments came as Spotify employees demanded the removal of select episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience from the platform and increased editorial oversight of the podcast going forward. Rogan and Spotify reportedly agreed to the deletion of several episodes. Fox herself spoke out yet again, calling on Spotify to cancel Rogan’s podcast. “Joe Rogan is being transphobic yet again. He has had more transphobic episodes than you can shake a stick at. Spotify needs to cancel his show already,” Fox said in a Facebook post.
All of this amounts to yet another cultural moment that the UFC expectedly hasn’t met. The promotion is perfectly fine exploiting and profiting off LGBTQ bodies and paying the LGBTQ community lip service when it is good P.R., but truly taking a stand against trans-exclusionary ideation and legislation isn’t something anyone will find inside the octagon.
The UFC will have another opportunity to address this matter next month when it runs its next pay-per-view event, UFC 262, in Texas, another state that is currently debating bills targeting trans youth and athletes. Maybe the message “we are all fighters” will finally sink in.