MMA Bashing: Mainstream Media Fails to Research before Drawing Conclusions

David Mayeda@@davemayedaAnalyst IJune 11, 2008

I recently read two excellent articles by Danny Acosta and Sam Sheridan that support mixed martial arts (MMA) in the midst of what has been a period of MMA bashing.  True, MMA has endured its share of harsh, often times unfair media criticism for quite some time, and this will not stop any time soon.  Nevertheless, these past few weeks have been particularly brutal.  In support of Acosta’s and Sheridan’s work, I thought I would offer some additional input. 

MMA has been fighting to gain acceptance in the mainstream sports world for well over a decade.  Not surprisingly, while clearing another hurdle by debuting on network television, MMA was simultaneously met with an array of journalists (both sports and non-sports oriented), who bashed the sport while citing virtually no research. 

The general public frequently relies on journalists to provide both accurate and objective information.  As we all know, the media plays a colossal role in shaping public opinion.  Consequently, it is essential that the information fed to us is precise and that media figureheads who present their opinions are well-informed.  The logic behind this is so basic that it hardly needs to be stated and provokes the question of why credible media would offer unfounded reports and opinions. 

Reaction to CBS’s airing of MMA on primetime television prompted journalists to make a number of unfounded statements, both before and after the May 31, 2008 event.  Here are just three examples from various media outlets that have different reach and target audiences:

Example One: “If what's going to happen on CBS on Saturday night were to happen out on the playground, somebody would be jailed before the nightwas over ... An article in ESPN The Magazine that's overwhelmingly favorable about MMA describes it as ‘human cockfighting.’” (Scott Pierce, May 30, 2008, Deseret News; note: typographical error was in original article).

Response: Asserting that someone would be arrested for carrying out a MMA move on another in a playground illustrates Pierce’s ignorance and lack of doing his homework.  Had he interviewed any MMA instructors for his story, he would have found that just like traditional martial arts schools, MMA coaches explicitly tell their students not to use the lessons learned outside of the schools.  The latter half of his above statement reads that ESPN The Magazine describes MMA as “human cockfighting.”  Pierce’s statement here is flat out inaccurate.  The ESPN The Magazine story stated others (namely John McCain) previously referred to MMA in that manner.  It is amazing that the Deseret News’ editors let him get away with such sloppy journalism.

Example Two: “...whatever this is, it sure isn’t in the same realm with boxing. This is boxing like the demolition derby is auto racing” (Bryan Burwell, June 4, 2008, NBC Sports). 

Response: Truthfully, with the exception of the Carano-Young and Lawler-Smith matches, I did not appreciate EliteXC’s debut on CBS either, at least from a planning and production standpoint (I do respect a majority of the athletes).  However, in this article, Burwell also says he has watched the UFC and WEC, so he claims to have at least some additional MMA exposure.  In addition to the overall tenor of his essay being laden with exaggerated analogies and lacking of any objectivity or research, his article insinuates that MMA is more barbaric and dangerous than boxing (he also brings up football in his essay).  MMA is dangerous; I have no qualms with that statement.  However, about 17% of all pro boxers end up punch drunk (with chronic traumatic brain injury; Lewis, 2006).  That is about one out of every seven!  Research shows that retired NFL players who sustained three or more concussions while in competition are significantly more likely to end up with chronic depression in their post-sporting years (Schwarz, 2007).  And it is not just men’s collision sports where we see high injury rates.  Research has shown that female teens who play basketball are eight times more likely to tear their ACL’s than their male counterparts, and that females in other sports, such as soccer and gymnastics have significantly higher rates of ACL tears than males (Mann, 2001).  If Burwell would like to question our overall sporting culture as dangerous and exploitive, that would be fine.  But his choice to only target MMA demonstrates his choice neither to contextualize sporting violence at a broader level nor to do the research which shows that a multitude of sports have high rates of severe injuries, which can have life-long effects.

Example Three: “Television has always been a business.  It’s been about money from day one and I don’t have any problem at all with that part of it.  So from a business point of view, CBS made a good decision.  They got good numbers with their key demographic – young men.  But there’s a big difference ... between good ratings and good taste ... in the long run, this kind of stuff that cheapens and coarsens and dumbs down the culture is also gonna harm us ... one of these days, somebody is gonna get killed in this sport, and the executives at CBS are gonna hope it happens while they’re broadcasting the match...” – Fox News Analyst Bernard Goldberg (The O’Reilly Factor, discussing EliteXC’s broadcast on CBS). 

Response: Likewise, it is clear the use of extreme hyperbole is a tactic being utilized here by Goldberg, again, based solely on his personal assumptions with no supportive research.  He states that television is a business about money. Seems his own opinions and the way he expresses them are colored by a desire for increased ratings as well. 

It is not difficult for journalists to do a little research or to utilize the resources at their workplaces do some research for them.  Isn't conducting research a prerequisite for professional journalism?  Or do these journalists care more about making off the cuff statements that resonate with a more conservative demographic than they care about reporting accuracy?

A few interviews I have conducted with mixed martial artists present a different perspective:

Antonio McKee (11/21/2006): For the politicians that call it human cockfighting, I don’t think that if you surfaced up some of the dirt that the politicians are doing, people would accept them as politicians ... The politicians make the laws, the rules to support their campaign, whether it’s hurting the poor people or the rich people.  There’s always gonna be a victim.  And in this game, because I believe they don’t benefit from it yet, they’re gonna call it human cockfighting.  What’s the difference from boxing?  You get in a boxing match and you beat the [hell] out of each other with a glove ... I think people gotta open up their capacity of thinking and look at the big picture, not the small portion that benefits them. 

Randy Couture (9/26/2006): Well I think that anybody that takes the time to get past that initial impression or to take a closer look at what’s going on when these combatants step into that cage [will] realize there’s a lot more to it.  It’s not just human cock-fighting; it’s absolutely a sporting event like any other sporting event.  It just happens to be in a combative environment.  So people get hit.  People get knocked out.  You know, it’s no different than boxing or kickboxing or any other Olympic martial arts combative sport.  So I don’t think those arguments hold water for very long ... As far as other sports go, people want to talk even about the sport of wrestling and all the weight cutting, but no one mentions all these over weight football players that drop dead from these two or three a day practices ... But because it’s a revenue sport and it’s so much in the public eye, people don’t mention it as much.  And it’s kind of irritating and they’ll pick on our sport for no particular reasons. 

Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson (9/24/06): And in our sport, we can give up any time we want.  We can give up if we’re too tired, you know what I’m sayin’.  If something’s hurt, we can give up.  In boxing, you’re not allowed to give up like that.  That’s like, looked down upon.  So that’s why my sport, in my sport there’s more to it than just trying to knock somebody out, you know, you can try to get the referee to stop the fight by just getting [your opponent] to not answer anything, and submitting him, and stuff like that ... football [is] way more dangerous.  Rugby, you ain’t got no damn helmets on, or pads.  I think my sport is probably safer than soccer. 

One might argue that the above quotes are biased, given that they are being expressed by mixed martial artists themselves.  However, expertise by those in sports medicine have advocated that MMA is not nearly as dangerous as the mainstream media portrays it to be (see Part One and Part Two interviews with Dr. Johnny Benjamin). 

Yes, MMA has its problems, as do all sports and non-sporting organizations.  Unfortunately, mainstream journalists are attempting to create a moral panic over MMA by communicating embellished rhetoric in hopes of bumping up their own ratings.  Before questioning MMA’s strategies used to entice viewership, perhaps first, journalists should look at their own work and ask if it is based on objective research, or simply on unfounded, ratings-motivated hype. 


David Mayeda, PhD, is author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society, the first research-based book that examines MMA from a political standpoint, based on in-depth interviews with 40 mixed martial artists, including Antonio McKee, Randy Couture, ‘Rampage’ Jackson, ‘MayheM’ Miller, Dan Henderson, Guy Mezger, Chris Leben, Frank Trigg, Travis Lutter, and Chris and Mike Onzuka. 


Non-internet Resources:

Lewis, R. (2006). Why haven’t we banned boxing? Neurology, Vol. 6 (23), 5-6.

Schwarz, A. (2007 May 31). An answer to help clear his fog. The New York Times, p. D7.