The UFC, The Religion of Sports and The Tree of Life

On December 30, 2016 Cody Garbrandt defeated former champion Dominick Cruz for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 207 bantamweight title. Cody Garbrandt is the protégé of the now retired Urijah Faber aka “The California Kid”.

 Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz had been trading words and heated exchanges for months leading up to the fight. The “bad blood” between the two had been an overflow of the famous Faber and Cruz long time rivalry. Cody Garbrandt taunted Dominick Cruz relentlessly during all five rounds of their UFC matchup. Garbrandt danced around the ring, stuck his tongue out at Cruz, put his thumbs behind his ears and wiggled his fingers and even sprawled a couple times mid-round just to send the message to Cruz that he was just too slow. Up until now Dominick Cruz has had an astounding 22 – 2 record. The Urijah Faber led Team Alpha Male and Dominick Cruz feud has been burning brighter and hotter than ever before and as usual the UFC has been using it as part of its marketing platform.

There are a few things that we need to consider at this point and unfortunately this issue has many different “branches” that make up the tree that gives life to the religion of sports here in America. The question is:

Do we need to trim the tree or cut it down for the health of society and are we willing to do so?

Whose fault is it?

Finding fault is both a good and bad thing. It does allow for people to be held responsible for their individual actions but where it becomes muggy is when their is a level of fault on both sides. What then has to be determined is the degree of fault and what is defined as the action(s) definitive of fault.

In deciding whether to trim or chop down this “Tree of Life” it is important that we have a complete perspective at fault and the role it plays in the religion of sports.

Fault becomes warped when it comes to the religion of sports because sports is about winning. Heads tend to roll when people lose so this puts everyone into survival mode which triggers our primal tendencies to kill, conquer and feed. I want to take a second and revisit the Garbrandt and Cruz feud specifically. First of all, there was bad blood on both sides that started way before Garbrandt but since I have been following UFC I have never seen someone taunt a fighter in the ring during a fight specifically, as much as Garbrandt did to Cruz. Even Faber and Cruz seemed to have more respect for each other during their actual bouts. If their is any fighter that has acted the same or worse than Cody Garbrandt did in the ring, then they deserve just as much if not more criticism. Let me be clear. This type of behavior is not ok for ANYONE.

Now I am not bashing  Cody Garbrandt. Garbrandt won against Cruz fairly and demonstrated skill, precision and utter athletic glory in the cage at UFC 207. Garbrandt very humbly took off his belt and put it on Maddux Maple who is a fan of his that survived Leukemia. Not only did Garbrandt place the belt on him, Maddux Maple walked out with Cody and was in his corner. By doing this Cody did something that no fighter has probably ever done before (including Cruz) and for that he deserves major kudos. Unfortunately Maddux Maple has also seen Garbrandt’s behavior and I’m sure that he idolizes him. My concern is that this type of behavior is telling young boys especially that it’s ok to act in an aggressive, bullying and undignified manner as long as you’re the champion.

We cannot afford to be a society that condones a selective hatred mentality and we’ve seen this in our recent election. Selective hatred says that we can demonstrate hatred towards one thing, people group or way of life etc. but another seemingly greater action of “good” cancels out other acts of hatred. For example, we could basically steal or cheat as long as we volunteer at a soup kitchen. The problem here is where do we draw the line and who is fit to justify redeemable acts of hatred or violence?

Back to the “Tree of Life”

What about showboating, how harmful is it, and how do we measure the magnitude? Is it a branch or part of the roots? When do we know when showboating crosses over into unnecessary aggression, unhealthy conflict and bullying?

In every sport there is a certain amount of showboating and the NFL is probably the most proactive in its attempts to keep players in line. The National Hockey League (NHL) has also been known to use fighting as a draw to their events but they do have some rules and penalties that are applied to players that are severely out of line. The UFC not only glorifies showboating, they tolerate pure unadulterated bullying at times and there marketing teams take it to the bank. This behavior makes the sport of fighting look like a televised bar room brawl.

The type of behavior that both Garbrandt and Cruz displayed is just an example of many other past, present and future feuds among UFC fighters.

Does the Public Want This?

If there was no fighting in hockey, dancing in the end zone or stories of “bad blood” between our favorite UFC fighters or teams would ticket sales plummet? Is the public pushing for this type of behavior or are sports organizations manufacturing a gladiator type of cultural shift in our society? Are marketing companies just doing what needs to be done by highlighting all of this and jumping on the bandwagon? What does a heightened presence of male aggression in society mean for women and children? 

The truth is that I don’t have the answer to all of these questions although I very much wish that I did. I know that on a personal level I am starting to pull away from sports even though I truly love it. I’m simply not entertained by some of the things I see anymore. I try to mentally sort the good from the bad and celebrate the athletes that go unnoticed because they aren’t confrontational. Most importantly I make myself think about it. I have conversations with people that don’t agree with me and I think about it some more. Ultimately I worry very much worry about how women and children especially will suffer if we continue on this path of no advocacy.

There is something inside all of us that likes to see conflict and triumph….a victor. One of my favorite Professors once told me that as a society we are obsessed with hero’s and villains. For some of us it’s for pure entertainment and for others it’s a mirror into our own lives.  Some are immune and some are influenced. Some of us may think we’re immune but are really influenced and some may think we’re influenced but are really immune.

The ultimate question is, is it ok to be ok with it? Is it ok to never be bothered or at least think twice about it?

The answer is no. For us as spectators our small adjustments impact organizations. Maybe we decide to only support certain league’s, teams or fighters and avoid others. Maybe that’s the change we need to make. These changes impact organizations especially when they are collective and our voices can be heard.

The Religion of Sports

Sports has provided many men and women with opportunities that they have never thought were possible and this is especially true for Cody Garbrandt. Sports has the power to unite people from all walks of life under a common cause, uproot communities from poverty and influence people of all ages for the better.

I often think about the Cubs winning the World Series. It was a beautiful thing and I have to admit that I even found myself turning on the game for the final hours. When the Cubs won, fans flooded Wrigleyville for celebrations and Chicago was in flux. Many of my friends were consumed for weeks leading up to the world series. The crime rate in Chicago increased by 57 percent in 2016 and Chicago’s World Series weekend was also its deadliest of the year.

I can’t help but think about what would happen if every Cubs fans stood up against violence in Chicago? What if the Cubs made a statement against violence before every game? What if the Cubs invited community leaders to say a few words before every game that speak to people that suffer in the violent areas of Chicago? What if the cubs donated the proceeds of one game to community building projects? Would this help to remind fans about what is going on in the city and demonstrate responsibility? What if these small actions saved lives? 

As violence and hatred continues to escalate in our country we cannot afford to have influential organizations either creating or reinforcing a culture of violence. There are many ways for athletes to compete and still be role models even in fighting. Fighting actually doesn’t have to be a bloody sport. It’s up to the administration to determine when to stop a fight and to police the rules that dictate what’s allowed.

To answer my earlier question, I don’t think we should cut down the “Tree of Life”. I do think we should be willing to cut it down if we have to and we need to cut off the many dead branches. We can make the tree healthier by:

  1. Giving all athletes the tools that they need to be successful not only in their careers but in life. We should be helping them handle the pressure, manage their money and grow on a personal level.
  2. Provide ethics training for athletes and the organization as a whole.
  3. Stand up for social causes as an organization and challenge people to be involved more than we do now. Cody Garbrandt sent a big message of hope to those battling cancer and more athletes and organizations should take on the personal responsibility to do the same. 
  4. Create policies that deter bullying and advocate for those who can’t defend themselves.
  5. Stop using violence as a marketing tool.
  6. Educate the public on what it means to compete in a safe way.

All organizations of influence have a societal responsibility that transcend making money





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