Overreach in the Argument About MMA as Both Entertainment and Sport

Ph2007092102377_mediumWhat do you do with a Division I football coach with a 10-year record at your school of 74-50? Maybe you're not sure. Ok, what do you do with that same coach if they went 8-4 this season? Still not sure? Ok, what if that same coach was named ACC Coach of the Year this year for their exemplary performance? I'll tell you what you do. You fire him.

What does any of this have to do with MMA? The Washington Post's John Feinstein explains:

[Ralph] Friedgen isn't being fired because he can't coach. He had a record of 74-50 in 10 years after taking over a moribund program at his alma mater. He went to seven bowl games. The anomaly of 2009 aside, he put together a solid program.

But that wasn't enough. Friedgen's being fired because he no longer excites Maryland fans even when he's winning. They sent that message loud and clear this past season, and there was no reason to believe that would change next fall. Anderson didn't want to commit to Friedgen through 2014, and he recognized Friedgen was right when he said recruiting would be hampered by being a lame-duck coach. Once Franklin left for Vanderbilt, Anderson had to make his move, one way or the other.

Emphasis mine. Does that italicized portion of the text sound familiar to anyone?

I'm often told MMA's emphasis on entertainment such that it trumps what a "normal" sport would do is so strong, MMA isn't really sport. In fact, it's no secret the UFC's formula is promote a sport on a professional wrestling model. With that kind of crossover, is it even a sport at all?

The answer is yes and the overreach on the argument is nauseating. While there's no denying combat sports are dictated more by considerations for fan entertainment than football or basketball, the idea that those sports are exempt from the invisible hand of entertainment pressures is demonstrably false.

For-profit sports are ultimately always going to be subject to demands for financial solvency or excellence. Admittedly, Maryland's football program is a struggling one. They have to resort to measures Duke basketball or Ohio State football would likely not undertake. Combat sports, such as they exist, are niche sports and must do more matchmaking and promotional origami to satisfy fan demand.

But the point is that there is not a categorical difference. The point is that there's a sliding scale. The idea there are "true" sports and that those "true" sports are free of the pressure to entertain during the course of working is a false notion promoted only by those who wish to over emphasize the role of professional wrestling in MMA in an attempt to justify the former.

Sports are about physical excellence. And within contained sporting universes, they are about determining hierarchy. Combat sports take circuitous routes, but ultimately they arrive at similar positions as traditional sports within their own universes. Title contenders like Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami might not get the linear path to glory they'd prefer, but is their legacy of achievement somehow altered by it? Sure, Randy Couture fought James Toney, but what business did Colt Brennan's University of Hawaii have competing against Mark Richt's University of Georgia?

Despite what the acolytes of sports entertainment may tell you, MMA is very much all sport. The balance of goods of what shapes and drives it is not the same as it is for other sports, but it is not a different animal. At the end of the day, sports is about entertainment. Just ask Ralph Freidgen.

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