UFC cannot condone sexual harassment

In 2007, as he was announcing new guidelines that would cover player conduct, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke words that Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White needed to hear.

If he had heard them, former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson might not have sexually harassed a female reporter during an interview after UFC 130 on May 28 in Las Vegas.

If White had taken heed of Goodell’s dead-on-the-money words, his company would not have looked the other way when one of its fighters at UFC 127 repeatedly used a derogatory term used to describe homosexuals.

A UFC spokeswoman said color analyst Joe Rogan (above) is an independent contractor and doesn't speak for the organization.
(Getty Images)

And, had White bothered to have thought about establishing personal guidelines for his employees, his highly popular television analyst, Joe Rogan, would not have referred to Yahoo! Sports mixed martial arts blogger Maggie Hendricks as a part of the female anatomy.

In announcing a suspension of Adam “Pacman” Jones in 2007, Goodell made clear that the league would no longer tolerate outrageous conduct by its players.

“It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff,” Goodell said. “We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard.”

Jackson miserably failed to meet any standard of decency when he put his face near reporter Karyn Bryant’s breasts following his win over Matt Hamill at UFC 130 on Saturday and said he would like to “motorboat” her. When Bryant told Jackson that she is partly of Jamaican descent, he responded by saying, “Well, Jamaican me horny.”

Apparently that’s the point where everyone was supposed to yuk it up and talk about what a funny guy old “Rampage” is. Except, it wasn’t funny, because it was the dictionary definition of sexual harassment. Instead of laughing, we should have been outraged.

Bryant brushed it off and insisted she wasn’t bothered by it, but the excuse that it was just “Rampage being Rampage” doesn’t cut it. Nor does it matter how Bryant felt, as the many Jackson apologists who have since posted on Internet bulletin boards have alleged. It is already difficult for women to compete on equal footing with men as sports writers and Jackson’s sexual overtones simply made it worse.

Bryant somehow managed to trivialize the situation when she later tweeted to Jackson that she is happily married and not looking for any “side action.” Then, almost unbelievably, she added, “If he sez I can creep tho I’ll holla”

This, though, is not and should not be about Bryant, who was the victim. It is about Jackson’s boorish behavior, about an out-of-control fighter having no boundaries and not being reeled in by an organization that is fighting desperately for mainstream acceptance.

There is little doubt that Jackson, whose off-the-cuff, irreverent humor has helped make him one of the world’s most popular fighters, was attempting to be funny and wasn’t trying to sexually harass Bryant. Words, though, have consequences and there are plenty of women journalists who are extremely uncomfortable being anywhere around Jackson given his history of making sexual overtures toward them, jokingly or not.

Zuffa, the company that owns both the UFC and Strikeforce, brought its more than 300 fighters to Las Vegas last month for its annual “Fighter Summit,” in which it takes a day-and-a-half to lecture them on the evils of steroids and drugs, to counsel them on financial matters and gambling, and to help them cope with a whole series of life issues they may face as newly minted celebrities. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful session that other companies ought to emulate.

Nothing, though, was on the agenda about sexual harassment, but if White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta are serious about making the UFC a mainstream outfit, it’s going to need to be.

Can one even begin to think of the furor there would have been had an NFL player acted similarly in a postgame interview on ESPN with Erin Andrews or Suzy Kolber?

Hendricks correctly called out Jackson on his outrageous and unacceptable behavior and, for that, was greeted with a torrent of abuse from a fan base which failed to see how Jackson’s “kidding” might create a hostile and uncomfortable work environment for a woman assigned to cover MMA.

Among those ridiculing her was Rogan, the color analyst on the UFC’s television broadcasts. Other than Fertitta and White, Rogan quite possibly has done more than anyone else to help make MMA mainstream, but he made a huge faux pas when he blasted Hendricks in a post on the popular forum, The Underground.

On Wednesday, Rogan used the C-word when describing Hendricks and her writing. Rogan wrote that Jackson is “not a [expletive] dentist, he’s a cage fighter … ” Writing specifically about Hendricks later in the post, he wrote, “I don’t think [Jackson] should be given a free pass for some of the questionable things he does, but I do think that this woman in question is all kinds of [expletive].”

Rogan made a sort-of apology on Thursday when he made another post on The Underground: “Never did I imagine that so many people would get their panties in a bunch about the use of the word [expletive] to describe a female blogger.”

He wrote that his use of the C-word was unfortunate and said he views it as “just another word for bitchy.”

By using the C-word, though, he undermined any credibility or authority he had on the subject and came across as a testosterone-filled teenager not to be taken seriously.

Rogan’s words were extraordinarily inappropriate, particularly as the very public mouthpiece of a billion-dollar company. The UFC needed to make a strong, public condemnation of Jackson’s behavior and Rogan’s choice of words, but has thus far failed to do so.

Instead, late Thursday UFC spokeswoman Caren Bell privately called Hendricks and issued an apology. And while it is commendable that the UFC offered any kind of apology at all, it was made privately at a time when Hendricks was under heavy siege publicly because she stood up for what was right. A public apology would have meant more and carried far more weight.

Bell also pointed out to Hendricks that Rogan, who failed to respond to a text message seeking comment, is an independent contractor and doesn’t speak for the UFC. It’s a similar point White made to Yahoo! Sports during a very brief interview about it late Thursday afternoon.

“Joe Rogan is an independent contractor and he wrote his opinion,” White said. “And you are free to write your opinion of Joe Rogan’s opinion.”

In this case, though, the opinions that counted were those of Fertitta and White and they chose to keep their thoughts to themselves. They can’t allow Rogan to host UFC weigh-ins, tape promotional materials and do television commentary on UFC fights and then so simply distance themselves from Rogan’s objectionable words.

Fertitta and White needed to make the point that Zuffa does not condone sexual harassment and that the UFC and Strikeforce welcomes reporters of both sexes and will guarantee them a safe, secure and non-threatening workplace. They also need to make it a priority to teach their fighters and those who work for them what sexual harassment is and stress that it won’t be tolerated.

The two men who have done so many things correctly in building MMA over the last 10 years have failed so utterly and completely in this instance.

They need to apologize, not just to Hendricks, but to all women reporters. And after they apologize, they need to take their heads out of the sand and take clear, decisive action to make certain it doesn’t occur again.

Saying boys will be boys simply isn’t good enough.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 3, 2011