Viewpoint: Protecting the UFC Brand

By Zach Arnold Mar 24, 2014
The UFC cut Will Chope (right) when his past was brought to light. | Photo: Gleidson Venga/

It was the kind of revealing headline that scares the living daylights out of a fight promoter: “Will Chope was discharged from Air Force after repeatedly assaulting his wife.”

If you wonder why UFC President Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship often finds themselves coming from a reactionary place when it relates to defending their company, look no further than how the situation involving Chope played out over the weekend.

Bleacher Report’s Jeremy Botter wrote the article that essentially terminated Chope’s career in the UFC. Old-fashioned, gum shoe investigative work into Chope’s background in the Air Force brought to light quite a nasty story. Documents from the Air Force Court of Appeals allege volatile domestic disputes between Chope and his now ex-wife over several issues. The records detailed physical abuse and threats, including a claimed incident involving a paring knife.

It is no wonder the UFC cut bait immediately on Chope. It had no choice. In a vacuum, Chope’s apparent non-disclosure of what happened in the Air Force Court of Appeals was bad enough. Juxtaposed to what recently happened in South Florida with Thiago Silva and the charges leveled against him for aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon, Chope was lucky the information regarding his prior domestic disputes did not surface earlier.

There will undoubtedly be some criticism directed towards the UFC for not exercising enough due diligence when it comes to background checks on its fighters. While there is certainly a plausible case to be made that the UFC should use its expansive legal and investigative resources to perform due diligence on American fighters, I think it is somewhat unreasonable to heap criticism upon the UFC for trying to investigate the backgrounds of all of its non-American fighters.

When the UFC applies for work visas for fighters, background checks are in place. Whether or not the system is foolproof is another story. However, you cannot simply dump on the UFC for not being able to predict what a loose cannon a fighter might be when it comes to domestic disputes or brandishing a weapon. There is only so far the UFC can go in trying to scope out the pasts of the fighters it books. This is the fight business. It is not exactly populated with Mother Theresas. It is a legally classified ultra-hazardous sport that requires participants to be just a little bit crazy and unbalanced.

What about other professional sporting leagues like the NFL, NBA or MLB?

The NFL is king of American sports. It is also a league in which the majority of athletes are American. There is also a significant amount of cash poured into the due diligence process, both from the league office and from the individual team organizations. You do not have that luxury in a company like the UFC. NFL Security consists of current and former policemen, FBI investigators and detectives and even secret service operatives. The teams have their own security staffs and detectives at their disposal. There is a layer of scouts. There are also big events like the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Even with all of this due diligence being performed in and around the NFL, look at the amount of personal conduct violations NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had to deal with during his tenure.

MLB and the NBA are more fitting comparisons to the UFC given the amount of foreign talent in those professional leagues. Both operations perform extensive background checks, and yet there are always going to be cracks in the system. Look at what happened with Pete Rose and gambling on baseball and the Mitchell Report on drug usage. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern had to deal with a crisis involving the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal. The credibility of NBA officials remains a sticking point with fans to this day. Since that incident, all NBA officials are required to undergo extensive background checks. Whether you play in the pros or play in the D-League, you have to undergo an investigative examination, as well. Still, a background check is not going to prevent a social media scandal like Tony Parker being photographed with French comedian Dieudonne doing the allegedly anti-Semitic “quenelle” gesture. Despite certain athletes and officials slipping through the investigative cracks, professional basketball is firmly entrenched as America’s second most popular sport.

There is no foolproof solution, especially on the combat sports scene. What do fighters respond to quickest? Fear. Fear of losing. Fear of losing their jobs. Fear of not being able to perform on the biggest stage. There is a reason the UFC has a morals clause of sorts attached to its fighter agreements. You cannot predict stupid or crazy, and no matter how much due diligence you perform, there will always be fires to put out. Should the UFC beef up background checks and investigative protocols on American fighters? Absolutely. There is an incentive for the company to prevent as many scandals as possible. With that said, it made the right move in firing Silva and Chope.

The only question that can be debated down the road revolves around what happens if one of the company’s biggest stars gets caught in a similar situation. Not all crimes are viewed by the public equally in terms of seriousness. Chael Sonnen pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud and was suspended. Jon Jones was busted for DWI. Getting caught for domestic violence, however, is an entirely different ball of wax.


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