UFC Fighters and Casino Workers Share More in Common Than Just Gay Rights

Two weeks ago, the Marine Corps decided to end its sponsorship of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a mixed martial arts promotion company that hosts and broadcasts live fights to viewers around the world.

The Marine Corps' decision followed several months of an ongoing debate in New York state over the legalization of mixed martial arts (MMA), a failed bill in Congress seeking to end military sponsorships of professional sports, and a union campaign that highlighted sexist, violent, and homophobic remarks made by several fighters and UFC's president, Dana White.

Maj. John Caldwell, a spokesperson for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, cited "evolving mission requirements, budgetary constraints, marketing analysis and the recommendation of [their] contracted advertising agency" as well as the need to expand recruitment for a more diverse group of Marines as the main reasons for ending the sponsorship. However, several commentators including a Marine Corps veteran have derided the labor union that is behind efforts that ended the Marine Corps-UFC partnership.

In July, the veterans committee of UNITE HERE, a union that represents 250,000 workers in the hospitality, food service, gaming, textile, and industrial laundry industry, sent a letter to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos stating, "the UFC is an organization that has tolerated people associated with it making jokes about rape, homophobic slurs and sexually explicit remarks that are demeaning towards women." A video posted on the site unfitforthecorps.org features a compilation of these remarks made by fighters and president of the UFC, Dana White.

UFC light heavyweight fighter Forrest Griffin, for example, tweeted, "Rape is the new missionary." He later apologized for the tweet and made a donation to a rape crisis center. Dana White, in a rant uploaded on YouTube [the video no longer exists but is featured in this video at 0:53; there is also an interesting response], said, “whoever gave you that quote is a pussy and a fucking faggot and a fucking liar."

Yet, critics have raised questions about the sincerity of the union's campaign. A columnist writing for the Las Vegas Sun pointed out that the Fertitta brothers who own the UFC also own the Station casinos in the Las Vegas Strip, where workers are trying to organize for a fair process to join the union.

In October, the National Labor Relations Board upheld most of the findings that Station casinos had violated federal labor law in 82 instances, including conducting "coercive interrogations," "adverse employment actions," and "discriminatory discipline" of workers who support the union, a decision that was interpreted as a victory for the organizing drive for the workers.

But for the columnist, the union is only interested in the fight for casino workers and not really the fight for a less homophobic and sexist UFC. He writes, “does the union care about [UFC president] Dana White's foul mouth? Of course not. But you can be disingenuous and still be in the right."

The columnist's critique assumes that the struggle for better working conditions at the Station casinos is essentially different from the issues raised by the campaign against the UFC. However, like the casino workers, UFC fighters have been talking about a fighters' union.

Given the little transparency around how revenues are split between the fighter and the promoter, injury-prone working conditions, and allegations of a UFC monopoly in the industry, some like Jeff Monson, who fought in the top-tier of the heavyweight division for Strikeforce and the UFC, have called for the consideration of a fighters' union.

There are also wide disparities in compensation in the mixed martial arts industry. The top ten fighters earn between $340,000 and $865,000 but entry-level fighters who compete under the banner of the UFC earn as little as $6,000 if they lose their first match. Now consider that in 2008, Forbes estimated the worth of UFC to be at more than $1 billion. Since then, Zuffa, LLC, the company that operates the UFC has expanded its program’s reach into Canada, Australia, and the Middle East, struck a seven-year broadcast deal with Fox, and acquired its top competitor, Strikeforce, putting the company at a present value of some $2 billion.

Considering these issues and the financial difficulties fighters face when an event is cancelled, the casino workers' fight begins to sound very familiar after all.

It is still unknown what effects the Marine Corps decision will have on organizing efforts at Station casinos, but the campaign to highlight irresponsible homophobic and sexist remarks by UFC fighters and its president has already seen significant changes in the mixed martial arts world.

Last week, Liz Carmouche, who once served as a Marine Corps sergeant, became the UFC's first openly gay fighter. Dana White, UFC president, has come out in support of Carmouche's bravery and has voiced his support for same-sex marriage in the U.S. To date, no male fighter has come out as gay although a fighter who had previously worked as a gay porn actor did not face any significant discrimination on the UFC's reality series, the Ultimate Fighter.  

Despite these shifts toward acceptance, MMA circles are still seen as not being very tolerant of homosexuality. Moreover, unlike the National Football League, the UFC does not have a standard of conduct to govern the behavior of fighters in and out of the Octagon. Out of this tangle of issues related to the question of fighter compensation and representation, homophobic or sexist culture, and large sums of corporate money, the union's campaign – whatever their tactics – have definitely sparked important discussions about the conduct of the UFC and its fighters.