One of the men that has always been at the forefront of the discussion about unionization of fighters is Randy Couture. Now, as we head into what Randy promises will be his last fight, he is talking about the future of the sport. He is hopeful that the UFC and its fighters will work out the big issues before a union is truly needed. Via an interview with ESPN:
"Health insurance for fighters when they’re not competing is a huge issue," Couture said. "There are a few fighters who could call up the UFC and say, ‘Look, I need some help, I blew out my knee in practice,’ and the UFC is going to help them. They’ve been generous but they can’t do that with everyone. There are over 200 fighters.
"How about a retirement plan of some sort? Or at least educate these guys on how to take care of their money. How many MMA stars, five or six years from now, are going to be broke and destitute? We’ve seen that in boxing, and it’s a shame. An absolute shame."
The "insurance" issue is the one place that desperately needs to be addressed. Much like the "maybe-you-get-it-maybe-you-don't" locker room bonuses (which I always need to point out are much less common than many fans think), for a fighter to not be sure if the promotion can help them out if they're injured in training is a huge deal. I've spoken to some fighters about the insurance problem in the past and they've expressed just how incredibly high the premiums are for a policy when your occupation is a professional fighter.
I fully understand that the company is under no actual "obligation" to provide coverage, the fact that the fighters are the most integral part of the company's success seems to lend itself to the idea of covering your fighters as best you can.
Obviously a retirement plan is out of the question. There are simply too many fighters who flame out quickly to provide any sort of plan. Unless the company wanted to establish some sort of agreement for plans for fighters of a defined tenure. Of course, those are the kind of things unions tend to negotiate. And without union oversight, what would prevent the UFC from cutting a guy one fight away from hitting that "golden number" if he were a middle of the road non-contender simply to avoid having to provide for that plan.
Where Couture is spot on is in thinking it would be a solid move to provide some sort of education on money handling. There are a lot of young men who get into a position where they suddenly take home $10,000 in a single night and don't understand the realities of how quickly that goes away. It would be tremendous to see a kind of "rookie conference" much like the NBA or NFL have that explain to new athletes how to handle money, how to deal with the hangers on and how to deal with the new expectations of the public.
Couture continued by making it clear that a union is possibly not the direction to go:
"There’s a whole bunch of issues when you start unionizing," Couture said. "Look at football. The players are looking at a lockout because they might have to play two more games in a season and not increase their pay. I mean, why are you in the sport? Because you love to play the game, right?
There are a shocking amount of things wrong with this statement. The idea that football players should play two more games with a smile because they "love the game" is asinine. It's also far from what is at the very heart of the lockout. Couture may well be correct that, in the end, unionization may not be the solution. But that's likely more due to the fact that it's logistically a very difficult thing to accomplish. It certainly isn't because something like the NFLPA has looked out for its members' best interest as the sport has exploded in popularity.