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UFC’s bungled coronavirus response proves yet again, athletes are secondary concern

UFC 196: McGregor v Diaz Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Like dominos falling, sports and entertainment events were knocked down yesterday as organizations came to the realization that the show must not go on. Not right now, when a virus that our own government has said is 10 times more lethal than the flu has been declared a global pandemic. This includes the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, the NCAA, Formula 1, Champions League, Disney Parks and all of Broadway. Almost every major producer of such events weighed in on their plans by announcing postponements or cancellations, pointing to concern for customers and employees as a priority.

There was one glaring exception: the UFC.

With a regular touring schedule, the UFC touches more parts of the globe than almost any of the aforementioned entities. Last week, they were in Las Vegas. On Saturday, they have a scheduled show in Brasilia, Brazil. Next week, they’re supposed to be in London.

But how is the organization planning to handle this coronavirus outbreak? It took forever to find out. Most of Thursday came and went without a word.

While multiple outlets, including MMA Fighting, reported that at least this week’s Brazil event would go on without fans present, the UFC remained silent. Some of this can be excused. To be fair, this is an extraordinary circumstance that in the midst of an unrelenting schedule, can take some time to parse. It is OK to time some time to collect information before making a decision, but it would have been helpful to say they were monitoring the situation and considering options. Instead, they left people to wonder.

Finally, we got a bit of clarity late Thursday night when UFC president Dana White spoke to ESPN, saying they’d go on with events, some with fans, and some without. That is a decision that is misguided at best and dangerous at worst, considering the continued rise of cases, transmission rates, the possibility that the virus may be most infectious when symptoms are mildest, and with the finding that it is spread through breathing, even without coughing. With athletes, teams and production team members converging upon Brasilia from countries including the U.S., Denmark, Ukraine, France, Russia and Canada, among others, there is the possibility of coming into contact with an infected party, then bringing the virus back to their families and communities, possibly infecting others with underlying vulnerabilities who may not be able to fight it off in the way a healthy athlete can.

True, it is safer than an event with a full arena, but given the close confines of the cage and locker room, it’s the wrong call. There’s a reason the other leagues canceled or postponed events, and there’s a reason experts have urged social distancing as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. The NCAA, for one, earned an estimated $933 million on its March Madness tournaments last year, money they are forfeiting with their decision to cancel. You think they took this step lightly?

Worse, the organization plans to allow an audience at its London event next week, this despite UK numbers spiking over the last 24 hours, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying up to 10,000 people may already have the virus, many without yet knowing.

Such a decision to proceed with a packed event is irresponsible, bordering on malfeasant. Sadly, it’s not surprising that the UFC has chosen to flout the advice of experts when it comes to the treatment of their independent contractors. Because the fighters are not unionized or organized in any way, they have no voice in how things will move forward. Contrast that with Wednesday night’s NBA game, where the New Orleans Pelicans decided they would not take the floor after learning an assigned referee had officiated a game with a player, Rudy Gobert, who tested positive for coronavirus.

Most UFC fighters won’t speak up, and frankly, most of them can’t because they need the money. At this point they have put in weeks of camp, likely working through injuries and suffering through minimal, meticulous diets to reach their contracted weights. Their money isn’t guaranteed, so they are willing to risk injury—or illness—to earn it.

The UFC is quite capable of canceling this event, swallowing its cost and paying the fighters what they were supposed to earn, but they are loathe to share the riches with the plebeians. Remember, it was just a couple of weeks ago The New York Post reported that the UFC dipped into its cash reserves to approve a $300 million dividend to its investors — a number that is reportedly twice as much as it paid all of its fighters combined in 2019. There is always money when it comes to something ownership cares about: itself.

Meanwhile, the organization tried to frame its decision as some act of benevolence.

“They want to fight, they want to compete, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep them safe,” White said during his ESPN interview.

The best way to keep them safe—everyone safe—is to pay them the fighters their purses and to keep them away from gatherings. If the UFC doesn’t see this, can’t see this, it would be nice if their parent company did. Endeavor is a powerful entity that could easily step in and put a stop to the proceedings. It also holds sway over the Euroleague, which on Thursday morning—surprise, surprise—suspended league play. But the truth is, Endeavor doesn’t care any more about the athletes than the UFC does. It’s mostly interested in milking its cash cow.

So for now, the show will go on for the UFC. Of course it will. It was less than a week ago when White told us he “didn’t give a s—t about the coronavirus.” Thursday’s response proved it.

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