As a young basketball fan growing up in the NBA Jam-era ’90s, there were few players I enjoyed watching more than Seattle SuperSonics power forward Shawn Kemp. The 6-foot-10 All-Star possessed a 40-inch vertical leap and the sort of high-flying dunking abilities that made fans go crazy, and I thought he was just the best. In April of 1998, however, Sports Illustrated published an article which detailed the out-of-wedlock exploits of Kemp and some of his fellow professionals. The article was especially unkind to “The Reign Man,” focusing not on his achievements on the court, but instead on the fact that he had fathered seven children with multiple women.

The revelation came as a shock to 13-year-old me, who grew up in a fairly conservative household in Green Bay, Wis., and was the first time I got the suspicion that professional athletes might not actually be the heroes they’re often made out to be in highlight packages, advertisements and so many other areas of American culture. Shawn Kemp is a human being—a human being with extraordinary physical gifts, but a human being nonetheless—and just like all human beings, he did some things of which other human beings did not approve. (Kemp was featured in another SI article last year, a “Where Are They Now” piece where Kemp asserts he has always taken care of his kids, so at least there’s that.)

Time and time again, though, professional athletes do or say something that gets a lot of people riled up, and the world of MMA is not immune to such controversy. Last month, UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione took to The MMA Hour radio show to voice his unfiltered opinion about Fallon Fox, a fighter who was born a male but underwent gender-reassignment surgery and has lived as a female for the last several years. Mitrione, who has a recurring segment on the program, was extremely critical of Fox’s continued participation in MMA, referring to her desire to fight women as “disgusting.”

Mitrione’s comments drew criticism from all corners, including from the UFC, which suspended and fined the heavyweight fighter. He has since apologized (and, to his credit, not in the lame “sorry if my comments offended anyone” way) and is now scheduled to face Brendan Schaub in July, a fight that was announced 16 days after Mitrione was suspended. The relatively short length of Mitrione’s suspension also came under fire from critics, but UFC officials have expressed confidence in Mitrione’s contrition and said the punishment they handed out was sufficient.

The UFC needs to care about the things Mitrione says, because any controversial or offensive statements put forth by its fighters will automatically be applied to the promotion as a whole, fair or not. You can bet that as soon as Sports Illustrated announced the Jason Collins cover story from this week’s issue, the NBA or its teams circulated internal memos (or perhaps just verbal warnings) to its players to keep any prejudiced talk to themselves, lest the league as a whole should be labeled as homophobic. Less obvious, to me anyway, is why anyone else cares what Mitrione thinks about Fox.

Mitrione is a good mixed martial arts fighter and clearly a very gifted athlete. He played football at the highest levels in college and even spent a few years in the NFL. After his career on the gridiron had come to a close, he began a second one in the Octagon, appearing on The Ultimate Fighter‘s 10th season and fighting every one of his professional bouts under the UFC’s banner. Mitrione even won his first five professional fights, despite competing in the world’s premier MMA promotion. He’s also a fairly intelligent and, at times, pretty funny guy, which is why Mitrione had the standing segment on The MMA Hour in the first place.

None of these things make Mitrione’s opinion about Fox any more meaningful than yours or mine. The fact that Mitrione appears on television to fight someone from time to time does not somehow make his views on the world more significant. He’s not a world leader, or even someone that anyone would confuse with a role model. If you go back and listen to the segment in question, Mitrione preceded his criticism of Fox with a couple of rape jokes, so we’re not exactly talking about someone who watches what he says. Why, then, do so many people seem to care about the controversial rantings of a non-contender in the UFC heavyweight division?

I understand the desire among many to counteract the sort of divisive comments made by Mitrione, and those people are as entitled to express their views as Mitrione is to express his. The things Mitrione said about Fox might not fully constitute hate speech (thankfully, he didn’t use any slurs that would have likely resulted in his ouster from the UFC altogether), but they certainly stirred up a lot of negative emotions among many who heard them or read them later on.

In today’s age of instantaneous communication, the ease with which the general public can offer its criticism of someone’s perceived misdeeds is extraordinary, and that factor has no doubt led to the significant backlash against Mitrione. Nevertheless, these people should consider the source of such comments before launching into profanity-laced online tirades, 140 characters at a time, against Mitrione. What, besides the fact that he also fights for a living, makes Mitrione any different than John Q. Internet Radio Guest when it comes to opining on Fox? He’s not a doctor. He doesn’t have a degree in biology. He’s just an opinionated guy who was given a venue to express his views.

Again, the temptation to respond to such negativity is a strong one, especially when doing so requires just the click of a mouse, and if it was UFC President Dana White or someone who actually holds some degree of influence in MMA saying these things, it might be a different story. The bottom line, though, is that Matt Mitrione is a professional athlete who doesn’t care what we think, so why should we care so much about what he thinks?

Photo: Matt Mitrione (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.