Criminals are everywhere. In athletics, unlike the worlds of corporate business or education, it’s not a general requirement that a person is an upstanding citizen that passes a background check free and clear. Criminals are not blackballed in athletics like they are in other professions.

In the NFL, guys like Michael Vick or Plaxico Burress committed some pretty stupid crimes, and, after serving their jail time, were able to return to their careers. In addition to the criminal cases against the two, the league dealt out its own punishment in accordance with the fairly new player conduct policy.

In other high-profile cases, where the details are hazy, Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger, on two occasions, were accused of sexual assaults. All three cases were shrouded in suspicious allegations, and both had their criminal cases eventually dropped. Their respective leagues handled them quite differently.

In the Bryant case, the NBA essentially did nothing, because the case was ultimately dropped and the NBA doesn’t have a strict player conduct policy. The NFL, on the other hand, handed out a suspension to Roethlisberger after the second accusation in 2010, even though he was never charged with the alleged crime.

So, how does MMA compare?

The previous cases described are just a tiny sampling of the wide array of criminal cases that have taken place over the years in mainstream professional sports. MMA is no different.

Plenty of professional MMA athletes have been accused and convicted of crimes. Some of the crimes are more white-collar, such as Chael Sonnen’s mortgage fraud, but some appear more violent, like Devin Cole’s alleged assault of a young woman. Obviously, the judgment call is purely subjective, but should fighters be blackballed for criminal activity?

Zuffa pulled Devin Cole from the UFC on Fox 4 card because of his involvement in a 2008 case where he allegedly committed sexual assault. However, in that case, he pled down to a misdemeanor. He is not a registered sex offender and is supposedly able to pass school background checks with no problem.

To Zuffa’s credit, in the Cole case, the promotion is maintaining consistency. In late 2011, Miguel Torres was dropped from the UFC for an ill-placed Twitter post about a “rape van” that was meant as a joke, but received a lot of bad publicity.

While Zuffa may have maintained consistency in blackballing guys who were connected, either criminally or not, with sexual assault references, the organization, as well as other MMA promotions, hasn’t remained consistent with blackballing fighters for other convictions.

Fortunately, in the case of his felony money laundering conviction, Chael Sonnen was suspended from UFC events, but only for a short time, as he was on a fight card just seven months later. On the flip side, Jon Jones, the unofficial poster boy of the UFC, received no organizational repercussions after his drunk driving conviction, during which he wrapped his six-figure Bentley around a pole with a couple girls in the car, neither of which was his girlfriend.

Bellator, arguably the second largest MMA promotion, has actually made it regular practice to have felons under contract. Brett Rogers, convicted of third-degree assault against his wife, made it into Bellator, as did John Koppenhaver, a.k.a. War Machine, also a convicted felon.

It is safe to say that, while the biggest mainstream professional sports, like the NFL, NBA or MLB, have let some felons complete their jail time and suspensions only to return to the games, they are not as lenient with violent criminals as MMA is. Of course, there are exceptions.

After multiple run-ins with the police in various cities, including assaulting female dancers, alleged involvement in shootings, associating with felon drug dealers, and alleged weapons possession, Adam “Pacman” Jones was suspended from the NFL for the 2007 season and part of the 2008 season, only to return, where he currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Nobody is saying that guys like Pacman Jones, War Machine or Brett Rogers are role models in any sense of the word, so, where should promotions draw the line?

The answer is more about morality than anything else.

In one respect, does a guy who gets paid to beat up another guy even need to pass a background check? In MMA, you can’t exactly enter the ring with a knife or gun, any more than you can step onto a football field with a weapon. As a linebacker in the NFL, part of the job is to hurt people and make them afraid of the next encounter. How is that different in MMA? If the NFL lets convicted felons play football, why should Bellator care if Brett Rogers is a convicted felon?

In reality, the promotions should continue to run background checks, because it is always important to know who its employees are, but if mainstream sports are letting guys serve their time and continue to play, MMA should too.

Not that this is right on the grandest scale by any means, but this is the standard for professional sports.

While Zuffa may have felt it was the right move to blackball Devin Cole, the decision was probably guided more by public relations.

Unfortunately, even though the other mainstream sports have a larger volume of violent criminals, they have a greater “boy scout” image than MMA does. If Zuffa really wants to continue to build the UFC brand image and grow into the mainstream sports world, it needs to at least try to tone down the thug image that MMA carries with it. It’s unfortunate, and, frankly, unfair, that Devin Cole was cut, but it has taken and will continue to take a lot of PR over multiple decades to grow the sport into mainstream acceptance.

Felons may be acceptable in established mainstream sports, but if MMA wants to continue to clean up perceptions, it needs to do the best possible job of managing individuals that darken the image of the sport.

Photo: Chael Sonnen (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator