Maligned San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick returns to the field in Buffalo on Sunday. His weeks-long protest of the national anthem, which has sparked a much-needed debate on police violence, and racial and social injustice, will continue from New Era Field.
And while Kaepernick is successfully altering our contemporary national rhetoric, influencing fellow athletes like Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Arian Foster, and a host of others, his protest would never be allowed inside the UFC Octagon.
And not because combat sports are devoid of politics and social issues ...
Combat sports, namely boxing, have historically been a hotbed for social debate and awareness. Look no further than Muhammad Ali, the greatest of all time, and his conscientious objection of the Vietnam War and refusal to join the U.S. military. Fighters have always had a platform to influence a national conversation.
But in the case of the UFC, athletes will never have a chance to protest "The Star Spangled Banner,” simply because national anthems are not played inside the arena at UFC events.
It’s an ironic twist, as mixed martial arts is rife with displays of national pride. Fans from the U.S., Brazil, and Ireland consistently rally behind regionalized heroes as champions of heritage and symbols of global power. Crowds offer chants from from America’s “USA, USA,” to the Brazilian’s “Ooh Vai Morrer” or the “Ole, Ole, Ole” commonly associated with European fight fanatics.
Fighters themselves often walk to the Octagon draped in national flags; however, the message is always one of athletic idealism, rather than violent realism.
And despite dozens of African American athletes on the UFC roster, there has yet to be much fight-night mention of Kaepernick’s campaign to raise social awareness. The silence in no way reflects the actual sentiments of UFC fighters, but inside the arena and the Octagon, there is little place for politics and protest.
Ultimately, it’s all a coincidence.
The UFC never played national anthems before its events, even prior to the Kaepernick protest. The organization’s new owners from WME-IMG have not gone the route of the brass at the NWSL’s Seattle Reign, who aired the anthem prior to vigilant protester Megan Rapinoe taking the field, nullifying her intention to drop to a knee. Ari Emmanuel, Patrick Whitesell, and the UFC’s two dozen celebrity investors are merely continuing with an established production model, which, fortunately for the brand, keeps national anthems out of the Octagon.
So unlike the NBA, which may soon find itself subject to the same protests from players, the UFC remains forever safe from an athletic mutiny of fighters showing solidarity for Kaepernick’s cause.
And without needing to concern itself with the national anthem debate and protest, the UFC now has the ability to set a precedent regarding one of Kaepernick’s former colleagues at the NFL, Greg Hardy.
A former defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers, Hardy recently announced his intention to start fighting mixed martial arts, professionally. At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, Hardy may prove to be a fine athletic specimen for MMA; however, he’s a known batterer who has been suspended by the NFL (his record has since been expunged).
There have been many successful NFL-to-MMA transitions, most notably former Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants lineman Matt Mitrione, who fought for the UFC, and now competes under the Bellator banner. But Mitrione, and fighters like Herschel Walker, didn’t carry the baggage and checkered past of Hardy.
The follow up response from MMA promoters nationwide should be a simple closed door: aggressors of domestic violence have no place in professional mixed martial arts.
It’s a long stretch from Colin Kaepernick to Greg Hardy, even longer when that road takes an abrupt detour to be examined through the lens of mixed martial arts. But with sports at the center of many social and cultural discussions, it’s important to understand how mixed martial arts relates to the broader conversation.