Professional athletes.

Say those two words and a myriad of images and thoughts pop into people’s heads: competition; public adulation; sacrifice; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But when conducting this kind of word association, many people would also add words and phrases like: sense of entitlement; lack of accountability; and even, criminal behavior.

To be sure, the 24 hour news cycle and social media have magnified the personal lives and misdeeds of the small percentage of professional athletes who find themselves in compromising situations with the law. Even before facts can be verified, an athlete can find their names trending globally on Twitter, and their personal lives torn apart, if there is even just an accusation of criminal malfeasance, whether there is any verifiable proof or not. Add into that mix the pervasive nature of surveillance in the modern age, where security video is recorded seemingly everywhere, and camera phones are ubiquitous, and you find that a grainy 5 second clip may be all that is necessary to convict someone in the court of public opinion.

Now although there are some situations in which public perception outraces the facts where an athlete may not have truly done anything wrong, this is not to say that there are not some truly heinous professional athletes out there who deserve scorn, derision, and even incarceration, for the way they conduct themselves.  But even if a crime has been committed, often times these athletes are not held fully accountable for their actions, whether it be within the constraints of the justice system, and/or within their various professional leagues. Once a high profile professional athlete from one of the marquee sports becomes accused of criminal behavior, high-priced lawyers, agents, players associations/unions, etc., all become involved in absolving the athletes of any blame in the situation. And make no mistake, this is in large part a manifestation of an excuse machine that begins for many elite athletes at a young age. If a child shows exceptional athletic ability, they are often given a pass for bad behavior or poor academic performance as early as elementary school, which just sets the tone for the lack of accountability that they adopt throughout their lives.

However, with this being said, the recent incident with the former UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, in which he was involved in a hit and run accident that injured a pregnant woman, and in which drug paraphernalia was found in his vehicle at the scene of the accident, certainly seemed to be a significant break with this pattern of big money sports putting dollars in front of ethics, because of the manner in which Dana White elected to deal with this situation. Now White is a polarizing figure for many people, both within the world of professional MMA, and for the fans on the outside looking in as well. He (with the blessing of the Fertitta brothers) wields almost supreme power within the UFC, and his word is essentially law.  He has been criticized publicly in matters of financial compensation for fighters among other issues, and is not above airing out his grievances in public with individual fighters with whom he has disagreements (Tito Ortiz anyone?).  He has even been known to put individuals on blast on Twitter if he feels they are attacking him or the UFC.  However, as the visionary who saw what the UFC had the potential to become, and who, with the backing of the Fertitta brothers, almost single-handedly saved the organization from bankruptcy after going all in with his name, reputation and his own personal finances on the line, he would seem to have earned the right to run his organization the way he sees fit.

Now the UFC’s track record in issues of ethical behavior when it comes to missteps by fighters prior to Jones’ hit and run, is certainly not without it’s blemishes.  Even if looking exclusively at Jones’ past while in the UFC, without looking at the transgressions of any other fighters, he has left a trail of bad behavior in his wake, with a positive drug test for cocaine, a prior arrest for dui, and another incident where his vehicle was towed when he was driving erratically with a suspended license. The common thread throughout those incidents as far as the UFC reacting to them, was that he never received much more than a slap on the wrist.  But even with those previous incidents, or maybe because of the UFC’s reaction to them, it seemed that the feeling amongst MMA fans was that as the title-holder in the light heavyweight division of the UFC (and the male fighter with the greatest marketability to sports fans who were only casual fans of MMA), Jones would be allowed to fight in his title defense versus Anthony Johnson in UFC 187, which was to take place less than a month after his hit and run accident.

And then Dana White did something that was a bit unusual in big time, big money sports. He did not elect to allow the, “legal process to run it’s course,” which is the refrain you usually hear when athletes are charged with something prior to a big event.  Dana White elected to take the financial hit in terms of pay per view numbers, and do what he thought was right, which was stripping Jones of his title and suspending him indefinitely form the UFC. Wow. Statement made.  Make no mistake, this was a bold step.  This really was tantamount to the NFL sitting Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady right before a Conference Championship game, without even having a conviction in hand.  Do you think anyone in any boxing commission in any state would strip a high profile fighter of their title less than a month before a title fight, for a crime which a boxer hadn’t even been convicted of yet? Of course, that would never ever happen.  The NFL would allow the players to play, and the boxer would be allowed to fight, probably citing the fact that they would wait to see what happened after the player went to court…3 or 4 months down the road. Now, don’t get this twisted.

Dana White will never be confused with Mother Theresa, or Gandhi, and it’s not like the UFC wasn’t still going to make money, albeit less, from the fight with Daniel Cormier stepping in for Jones. But what White did, in my opinion, was at least a step towards ethics and morality in big-time sports, because he didn’t have to do it…but it was, without a doubt, the right thing to do. Maybe this was just a blip on the radar, or an aberration that we won’t see again.  But I (in my eternal optimism) like to think that it sent a message to the rest of the UFC that there will be accountability for a fighter’s actions outside of the ring…a rare occurrence in the world of the professional sports.

About The Author

Brian Nakanishi
Staff Writer

Brian Ricardo Nakanishi lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but is originally from Miami, Florida, and has lived in various places across the United States and Japan. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Brian first became interested in MMA with the highly publicized Ortiz-Shamrock fights, and has been hooked ever since. A writer, actor and filmmaker, Brian loves enjoying the great outdoors in Colorado, travelling, football, filmmaking, and is still mourning the end of Breaking Bad.