Inside the UFC’s Image and Accountability Problem

Conor McGregor’s most recent arrest highlights how the UFC has created and fueled its own image problem by making unilateral exceptions for star athletes. 

Few athletes have grown in popularity faster than Conor McGregor. His brand resembles an empire with revenue pouring in from various industries, the least of which coming from actually fighting in the UFC. However, with his rise to international fame have come numerous, well publicized missteps. His most recent incident is no exception. On Monday, March 1st at approximately 5:00 AM, McGregor was involved in an altercation outside a nightclub in Miami. Allegedly, McGregor grabbed an individual’s phone and proceeded to stomp on it and take it with him as he left with his entourage. He was subsequently arrested and initially charged by law enforcement in Miami with strong armed robbery, a felony in Florida, and misdemeanor criminal mischief. Not one to waste free press, Connor took advantage: you can purchase the shirt he wore walking out of jail.

A felony conviction brings serious repercussions for citizens and non-citizens alike – and Connor is not a U.S. citzen. In addition to criminal penalties such as prison sentences and/or significant fines, other rights can be revoked or altered because of a conviction. For example, a United States citizen can lose the ability to vote in certain states when convicted of a felony. On the other hand, a non-citizen can be deported and barred from re-entering the United States. These repercussions are referred to as collateral consequences of a conviction, and are not considered additional forms of punishment. Thus, McGregor’s arrest for felony strong armed robbery places his UFC career in a precarious position. If convicted, he can be deported and he will no longer be able to compete in the United States—the biggest venue for UFC events. If there is one thing, McGregor has made clear, if it isn’t a headline stealing event, it isn’t worth his time and a felony conviction all but ends his days as a main event in the UFC.

In the (likely) event McGregor avoids a felony criminal conviction, this incident will merely be a small speed bump in an otherwise rapid climb to international fame. Let’s face it, his last criminal conviction made him millions in the long run, even as the losing fighter in his return to the UFC. If this was a lower profile UFC athlete it would not be in the news. No one was bodily harmed, and the alleged value of the property damaged doesn’t shock the conscience. Really, this just gives McGregor and his brand free advertising over the course of three days.

The bigger picture isn’t as positive for the UFC, with a star athlete who is now facing criminal charges twice in two years and has only fought once. Over time, since McGregor first captured a championship belt at lightweight in 2015, the organization has made numerous concessions for McGregor and other high-profile athletes, including unusually long breaks between events without repercussions, and placing his brand on promotional materials for an event. These unilateral actions have created a culture where an athlete’s status as a bankable star talks and performance only matters as far as it boosts status. There will likely be no recourse from the UFC because of the revenue his fights generate. The UFC conceded as much in McGregor’s defense last month before the Nevada Athletic Commission. Naturally, questions arise concerning the true nature of the UFC. The organization seems to have its roots in providing a spectacle rather than focusing on athletic competition. Even athletes have become frustrated, with Colby Convington threatening legal action for being “passed over” for a title fight. 

Unlike more mainstream professional sports such as the NFL or the NBA, the UFC will always have a certain level of spectacle and carnival-like atmosphere attached to each event. It helps to sell fights between two athletes and generates buzz. It is such a core aspect of the sport that promotional speech regulation has been used as a threat to keep McGregor from engaging in hate speech. Another significant difference between the UFC and all other mainstream professional sports is the UFC is not unionized. This means there is no contract between the UFC as an employer and the athletes laying out the terms and conditions of their employment. Additionally, non-union employers retain the right to subject their workforce to unilateral changes in terms and conditions of employment. Thus, when McGregor or other star athletes get treated differently, the rest of the athletes have little to no realistic recourse. 

Fixing the image problem of the UFC and thereby making its athletes truly accountable for their actions will take a culture change. The most efficient way to change the culture in a professional sport is to unionize. Putting in place a mutually agreed upon contract governing the athletes’ terms and conditions of employment not only restricts the actions of management but it forces compliance from athletes as well. This can lead to restrictions on how the UFC selects fights, where top contenders no longer get passed over for matches management believes will be more profitable. Also, fighters will face uniform discipline for their conduct outside the cage. No matter their status and level of fame, if a fighter commits a crime it can involve professional discipline. 

Unionization is not perfect, and in many ways collective bargaining agreements merely reflect the challenges facing the industry at the time of negotiations, but it would undeniably move the UFC in the right direction. Streamlining discipline and match making procedures will naturally infuse accountability through the ranks of the UFC roster and over time the image problem will fade. The UFC has inspired many young men and woman to compete at the highest level. It’s time to take the next step to ensure they are all treated equally by management.

By Tony DiPerna

Photo Credit: Justin Lane/Shutter Shock

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