News from the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC was a bit controversial over the weekend. And Leslie Smith was paying close attention.
In a recent court filing, the UFC’s legal defense team writes that the plaintiff’s expert witness, economist Dr. Andrew Zimbalist, was using “junk science” when he compared the percentage of revenue that athletes in leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL receive to how much UFC fighters get.
Why was the comparison incorrect? Because players in those leagues are in a union and UFC fighters were not, the UFC’s attorneys wrote. Paul Gift was the first to report on the filing for Forbes and lawyer Erik Magraken expanded on it at combatsportslaw.com.
Essentially, the UFC’s own legal team was intimating that pay earned by athletes in a union is higher, because collective bargaining drives up rates.
UFC, in antitrust filing, move to exclude Zimbalast expert report arguing major sports aren’t proper comparators because player “unions wield pricing power and push wages up.” Yes, agreed UFC, that is one thing unions do for its members. @ProjSpearhead @LeslieSmith_GF @IamRagin pic.twitter.com/x7OePYhkXG— Lucas Middlebrook (@lkmiddleb) February 17, 2018
Smith, the founder and interim president of Project Spearhead, took that argument as something of a slap in the face. Project Spearhead is seeking to organize UFC fighters with the hope of potentially starting a union in the future.
“In fact, I almost felt that they were laughing at us,” Smith said of the UFC on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. … “That the reason we’re not getting paid is the lack of a union. It’s a little like they’re thumbing their finger at us, because they’re like, ‘we’re telling them what they need to do to get paid more, but we don’t think that they’re gonna do it.’ So it did light a fire up underneath me over the weekend.”
Project Spearhead launched in earnest a little more than a week ago. The first step, Smith said, is getting 150 fighters to sign authorization cards saying they are interested in organizing with Project Spearhead. Then, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board would investigate to determine whether or not UFC fighters are legally employees or independent contractors, which they are classified as now.
Smith, a UFC bantamweight fighter, said FedEx drivers and exotic dancers are examples of workers who have been misclassified as independent contractors in the past, when they were really treated like employees. She believes the UFC treats fighters like employees, but pays them and avoids certain benefits like they are independent contractors.
“We’re so similar to strippers,” Smith said. “It’s amazing how similar to strippers we are. Because we, like strippers — excuse me, exotic dancers — we use the UFC’s equipment, we are under supervision the entire time that we are doing our thing. We are mandated how much time we’re allowed to be out, we’re wearing a uniform. It’s a long list.
“I do strongly believe that we are employees and that is why I am pursuing this so strongly. I leave it open, because I won’t people to realize that Project Spearhead isn’t about me starting my own union. That’s not the point at all. It can’t be a union if it’s just mine.”
Smith, 35, said that she has received a positive response to Project Spearhead by many fighters, though she will not reveal how many have signed cards. Many fighters have issues with the UFC and Smith wants to make it clear that all of them come down to very similar things — an inequality in the balance between the promotion and the athletes.
Rather than just complaining in the media or on social media, Smith wants fighters to know they can go even further and make things better for themselves and their peers.
“It can’t just be a complaint,” Smith said. “And it’s all the same complaints that every body has. That they’re not getting the respect, they’re not getting the money, they’re getting disrespected by [UFC president] Dana White on these huge outlets. And that’s not OK. That’s not how professional adults should be treated or interacted with.
“So please, if you’re a fighter and you have a complaint and you’re gonna go online and you’re gonna talk about it any kind of public sphere, follow it up with ‘because I support a union.’ Or ‘because I want to see fighters organize.’ And then we can make something out of it.”