The Loop

The UFC and Dana White are putting people in danger—directly and indirectly

March 23, 2020
UFC 249 Khabib v Ferguson: Press Conference

Jeff Bottari

It's a sad reality of life that one of the strongest initial reactions to the coronavirus spreading on U.S. soil among people who are not scientists or anything remotely related, was it that was somehow not legitimate. As a person whose gut reaction is to expect everything to collapse into chaos even when there's not a global pandemic, I found this hard to understand, but it was all too common. Some went as far as saying it was a hoax, or designed to damage the president's reputation, but by and large the people on the "no big deal" side of the spectrum just believed that the government or the media or the weak nanny state libs were making a mountain out of a molehill.

I ran into this over and over again among the spectators at the Players Championship on Thursday, on the last day before the tournament was shut down. It was as though they couldn't conceive of a potentially deadly virus affecting them, even though many of them were old, and all had surely had a cold or flu at some point in their lives. Out of site, out of mind, and in the mental space where legitimate worry should have been, bravado reigned instead, and they made a performance of flipping the metaphorical bird to the bug that has now infected almost 300,000 people and killed 11,500 worldwide. (And it goes without saying that these numbers are almost certainly low, and climbing exponentially every day.)

This specific type of person—the "I'm too tough to care about corona" archetype—is personified in organizational form by UFC president Dana White. He was recently forced to cancel the next three events on the UFC's calendar, but he made it very clear in an interview with ESPN that he was doing so only because of White House guidelines, and that it was completely against both his will and his opinion. Worse, he insisted that UFC 249, a big event scheduled for April 18, will go on as planned:

His tone is skeptical throughout regarding the guidelines, and shifts from aggrieved (when discussing how hard it is to stage a fight under the corona restrictions) and defiant (when he insists that UFC 249 will continue). It's an awful showing that, whether he intends it or not, gives credence to everyone who wants to believe in their heart of hearts that the panic over coronavirus is just personal weakness and cowardice made manifest.

The Barclays Center has declined to host the event, but that didn't bother White, who simply said they'll look outside the United States. He went on to say that he's had "nothing but positive feedback" from fans and fighters on his desire to continue, and while that might be mostly true, the fact that a group of people who are inclined to a sort of instinctual machismo want to keep fighting isn't relevant; White's a leader, and at times like these a leader has to make smart decisions for a group. Money shouldn't matter. Image shouldn't matter. Can we really expect that if a fighter refused to fight under these circumstances, that he or she wouldn't be punished in some way? Isn't there an implicit coercion happening here?

If the April 18 fight goes on, without a crowd and with only a few production people in the ring, it's possible that nobody could get sick. That's not the point. The point is that the risk exists, and by modeling a total lack of concern for the real danger of COVID-19, White is encouraging people like the ones I encountered at the Players Championship, and who exist all over this country, who very much want to believe that the coronavirus is an overblown tempest in a tea cup driven by the hysteria of ninnies. He even got a shot at the media in his ESPN appearance.

By endorsing the viewpoint of the stubborn skeptics, White empowers them and contributes to dangerous behavior at a time when the safety of the American people and the stability of our economy depends on nipping this thing in the bud. His lack of leadership will have trickle-down effects that reach far beyond one fight. Many people admire Dana White, and for good reason—in a lot of ways, he's a very impressive guy. But whether his acolytes know it or not, he's just let them down in a profound way.

The "You Should Cancel Too" Event of the Week: The Olympics

UPDATE: The 2020 Olympics have now been postponed.

For the record, I understand event organizers who want to delay any decision about postponing or canceling an event. There's a lot of time and money that goes into these things, and it has be to very tempting to take a wait-and-see approach in case things vastly improve over time. Why cancel now when you can cancel later?

Well, there's the Dana White argument—delaying gives credence to the nonbelievers who are spreading this thing around. But the Olympics don't start until late July...shouldn't they get some more time?

No! These are the #%#$ Olympics! It doesn't matter how well Tokyo or Japan handles the coronavirus in the meantime, because more than any other sporting event, the Olympics attract spectators, athletes, workers, and more from all over the globe. It's a petri dish of disease, and even if the virus is under control by then, or on the ebb, that kind of gathering is exactly the kind of mess that could give it a secondary boost. The fact that COVID-19 spreads when carriers are asymptomatic means seemingly healthy people could head to Tokyo, spread it around in the hot, crowded conditions, and go home without ever realizing what had happened. The effects of that are obvious: Everyone who catches it will carry it home with them to every party of the globe.

There is absolutely no justification for holding the Olympics in 2020. The two biggest papers in America have run op-eds denouncing the idea this week. Also, it's an event that happens once every four it really that big a deal to postpone for a year? This should be the easiest decision of them all—the Olympics must be stopped.