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Why we need a conversation about race in MMA

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There is racism in MMA. Let’s start talking about it.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Gonzalez vs Cottrell Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Racism is a sensitive subject. Take a look at the comments section for any MMA post involving race. There will either be hundreds of hostile comments or a disabled comment section.

In the past few weeks, Tyron Woodley has been a hot topic of discussion. Before his interview with ESPN, Woodley articles would receive mediocre traffic and a handful of comments. That’s not the case anymore, and it all has to do with race.

“The second I bring up race in the sport I’m immediately race baiting. I can point out clear facts: no other champion has been treated like me. I’m not saying they support [Thompson] more, but he has some fans who have crossed the line. If I was a different complexion, I feel fans would treat me a different way.” [Transcribed by MMAFighting]

This statement changed how fans reacted to Woodley online and the size of the reaction. Woodley articles are now some of the most viewed, most commented, and heavily moderated in MMA.

Major MMA websites MMAFighting and MMAJunkie had to disabled comments on certain Tyron Woodley posts (Ex1, Ex2, Ex3, Ex4, Ex5). We reached out to both outlets to explain their decision to disable the comments section. Both outlets respectfully declined to comment.

At Reddit MMA, this post on Tyron Woodley talking about race was given the warning, “If you're going to dive into this thread, please be civil.” The moderators at r/MMA sent Bloody Elbow a statement about this warning.

“The comments about Woodley range from ducking the competition to being whiny to accusations of playing up the victim card. All of this is usually accompanied with ad hominem attacks and yes, overt racism.”

In Tyron Woodley’s ESPN statement, he mentioned that some of Thompson’s fans had “crossed the line”. Taking a look at comments on Woodley’s social media and posts referencing Woodley, it’s easy to see the types of comments that he was referring to.

Racism is very prevalent online, so it’s no surprise that black fighters have to deal with these sorts of comments every now and then. UFC Bantamweight Aljamain Sterling was recently sent a Snapchat message that included a racial slur, on top of other offensive remarks directed towards him and his teammate Chris Weidman.

We reached out to Sterling to get his opinion on racism in MMA. What ensued was a near half hour conversation that dived deep into the topic, including how often he gets harassed on social media for his skin color.

“Is it something I get often? It depends on what you describe as often. I get stuff here and there for sure, but definitely nowhere near as much as Tyron Woodley. I think with Tyron’s case, I think the difference is once he kind of opened that floodgate, it opened the floodgates for all the trolls to come out and use it to rile him up, even though some of it might be genuine, and some of it might be fabricated just to get under his skin. Who knows? I definitely do get it from time to time.”

I recommend listening to the entire conversation, as this one quote only scratches the surface on a very complicated issue that has many different layers and viewpoints. Sterling discusses issues surrounding Tyron Woodley and speaking up about race, how sports can help change pre-conceived notions of other minorities and what steps can be taken to talk about race in a productive manner.

Racism in MMA doesn’t stop at the fighters and isn’t just directed at one race. Media members and online moderators are even targets of these types of racist comments. MMAFighting’s Shaheen Al-Shatti recently received a tweet calling him a “towel head”. Below the tweet, Shaheen comments, “Oh I get emails like this on the regular. I'm well aware.”

Bloody Elbow comment moderator D.E.O saw an increase in racist comments directed towards him once the comments section realized that he was black. He was often the recipient of racist comments and hate-filled messages. D.E.O shared one of those hate-filled messages with us.

“[Username] here. I see one nigger defending another dark skinned nigger. You black as charcoal piece of nigger shit. You and other niggers alike are the worthless scum that populate the world. Why do you think we enslaved you guys, because you are worthless, big lipped, shit smelling, jail yard pieces of dirty shit. F—k you and every god dam cotton picking piece if shit nigger in your family. Burn and die in hell you big nosed nigger! F—k you and die.”

“Online is a different ball game entirely because the veil of anonymity emboldens people to do and say things that they wouldn't dare do in person,” D.E.O says.

Beyond the headlines and the nitpicking of quotes, Woodley’s main frustration was that he was the target of harassment and negative treatment due to his race, and that he would be accosted for trying to start a discussion. Based on the reaction to his comments, he was correct.

Race-baiting comments on Woodley KO’ing Koscheck video.

“It’s like the big elephant in the room.” Sterling says. “Everyone knows it’s there and no one wants to talk about it... I don’t know man. This is a very deep topic and can go so far and so deep and so many different ways it could turn... I think it’s something that has to be addressed and I think people have to learn to be comfortable talking about it for us to progress as a nation and as a world. Talking about it is one of those things and that’s where it begins. We have to have that conversation.”

The conversation that has started has been a hostile one. Woodley has been called a race-baiter and a whiner for bringing up the topic, with no attention directed towards the actual problem. Had Woodley drawn attention to the subject in a more palatable way, would that have changed the reaction he received? Maybe. Should we disregard his sentiment for that reason? Absolutely not.

Let’s begin a conversation instead.