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A bit from Dave Chappelle’s 2017 standup special “The Age of Spin” came to mind last week. A year before the standup special aired, Manny Pacquiao drew the ire of fans and sponsors alike by saying homosexuals were “worse than animals.” Chappelle called the comments outlandish, but then pointed out that a large part of the Filipino economy was composed of women working abroad and sending money back home. The men left behind, he said, were emasculated.
“And then, suddenly, a boxer rises from amongst them and reinstates their manhood with his motherf-----’ fists,” Chappelle said. “This is not the guy who you’re supposed to ask what he thinks about homosexuals. He’s not your champ.”
The punchline elides the fact that Pacquiao was running for a seat in the senate, so asking him about his stance on gay marriage was appropriate given the context; it’s not like someone randomly asked him in the gym what he thought about gay people after a few rounds of sparring. Yet there is still a resonant truth at the heart of the joke: Some people simply aren’t in a position to be a moral guide or clarifying voice on certain issues. Asking a religiously conservative professional fighter from a developing nation if he thinks gay people should be allowed to live a normal life is about as sensible as asking a mailman how to operate on a malignant tumor or asking a military contractor how to end a war. Nothing in their background allows them to find an answer worth hearing.
This idea became relevant last week in a number of ways. First, a clip of Donald Cerrone on Brendan Schaub’s podcast in which he voiced his perplexed opinion on transgender people made the rounds on social media: “I don’t buy it … Just because tomorrow you come in here and you want to be a girl … you’re still a man. You still have testosterone. We have so much free will we can do whatever we want, but an iguana can’t just be like, ‘Nah, I feel like being a girl.’”
A few days later, Henry Cejudo—bantamweight king and pound-for-pound most desperate-for-attention champion on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster—responded to a video Aljamain Sterling posted making fun of him, saying: “How cute [heart emoji]. When’s the release of your amateur gay porn coming out [sic]?”
Just as Cejudo doesn’t seem to understand why it’s corny and corrosive to use “gay” the way he did—or know the redundancy of asking when a release is coming out—Cerrone is unlikely to understand the difference between sex and gender, that sex is a function of biology whereas gender is a function of the cultural norms of appearance and mannerisms. As the writer Nathan Robinson put it, “In the real world, we don’t form our understanding of whether someone is a man or a woman by their chromosomes. Instead, we form it by how they look and act.”
It’s easy, however, to use this mode of thinking as an excuse: “I’m too ignorant to not be ignorant.” Charles Barkley found himself in a similar situation in 1991, when he accidentally spit on an 8-year-old girl sitting courtside. He was trying to spit on a racist heckler but missed. In 1993, he teamed up with Nike to release the infamous and iconic commercial in which he declared, “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” You can almost hear Cerrone and Cejudo— and dolly-throwing, old-man-punching, alleged-sexual-assaulter Conor McGregor, for that matter—say the same thing in their defense: “Just because I get paid to knock people out, doesn’t mean you should look to me for how to treat some of the most vulnerable people in society.” If anything, because they get paid to inflict violence on other people, perhaps they shouldn’t be propped up as role models.
The problem is, they are role models, if not by intention or aspiration than by virtue of simply being in the public eye. Who you are isn’t entirely up to you. You don’t get to decide that you’re not a ghoulish a--hole, just as I don’t get to decide that I’m not an insufferable SJW or whatever else the comment section will say. Others will perceive us based on their exposure to us and how their personal history colors that exposure. Our identity does not require our consent. Part of the package of status and fame is that words carry more weight. Even if it feels like you’re just making a harmless joke on Twitter, you’re actually broadcasting to over 83,500 people that being gay is shameful and weak; and even if it feels like you’re just hanging out with your large oafish friend, you’re actually on a podcast which inexplicably reaches hundreds of thousands of people.
Thing is, I’m sympathetic to these fighters. Like most people who grew up in the 1990s, I called people gay—and worse—all the time, without ever intending to demean homosexuality or homosexual people. However, that’s what I was doing nonetheless; and the very notion of existing in a sexually mismatched body is still hard for me to wrap my head around, as strange and easy to dismiss as the same hysterical nonsense of UFO abductees. Yet recognizing my ignorance is not a justification to remain there. It’s a call to fix myself in the opposite direction.
I think of empathy in three stages. The first stage: “How does that person feel in that situation?” The next: “How would I feel if I were in that situation?” The last and hardest stage to achieve: “How would I feel if I were that person in that situation?” Whether we’re talking about what it’s like to be a professional fighter under constant scrutiny or what it’s like to be part of a group glibly marginalized by one, it’s critical to strive for that third level.
It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that fighters should not, therefore, be looked up to in any meaningful way outside of their talent at winning fights, so we should try to divorce ourselves from putting them on a pedestal just because they’re visible. Yet even if that were possible, it would also be profoundly limiting. It would prevent us from appreciating someone like Roxanne Modafferi, who overcomes widespread doubts and tremendous athletic disadvantages to not only win big fights but do so with dignity and honor and joy that may not even be in her best competitive interests. The world would be a kinder, gentler and better place with more of her in it.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.