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Amid COVID-19 pandemic, the UFC is playing a dangerous game

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The UFC and Dana White need to cancel or postpone events in face of pandemic, rather than insisting that the show must go on.

UFC 236 Holloway v Poirier 2 Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

The UFC is putting people in danger.

That’s not a controversial statement. That’s not trolling. That’s a fact. Deny it if you must. Call me a fear monger if you want, but I’ll stand behind that statement because UFC president Dana White is being reckless by stubbornly refusing to scratch or postpone UFC events over the next month.

And it’s not just because these actions put the promotion’s fighters in at a high risk of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus.

It’s not as if Saturday’s event will take place in a vacuum with no one present but the fighters. Seconds will be with the fighters. Referees and judges and commission representatives will be in and around the octagon. Camera operators will be around the cage. UFC staff will be inside the arena as will arena workers and media partners.

As of Thursday, MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz reported that fighters would not be tested for coronavirus. With fighters not getting tested, it’s safe to assume that no one working inside the arena on fight night will be tested. That’s a foolhardy decision.

Of the 24 fighters competing in Brasilia, 12 do not hail from Brazil. That means those fighters and their seconds will fly out of Brazil after the event, as will some UFC staff. Again, it appears none of these individuals will be tested for coronavirus before they travel.

At this moment the UFC intends to hold its March 21 event at O2 Arena with a crowd, this despite the fact the Premier League suspended games after Mikel Arteta, the manager of Arsenal, and Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive for coronavirus. The Champions League and Europa League have also suspended games.

The two most recent UFC events at O2 Arena drew over 16,000 fans. With a full crowd, the event will add arena staff to the attendance. There will also most likely be a larger number of UFC employees on site for the fight card. The idea that a quick scan with an infrared thermometer will catch any potential problems as fans and staff enter the arena is laughable, but that’s what White proposed as a solution while speaking to ESPN on Thursday night—that and “working with doctors and health officials and the government to figure out how to keep the sport safe and continue to put on events.”

The New York Times wrote about infrared thermometers in February. Dr James Lawler from the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security said of the technology:

“These devices are notoriously not accurate and reliable. Some of it is quite frankly for show.”

Dr. Lawler had firsthand experience with the devices during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

“My temperature was often 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) or lower, which starts to become incompatible with life. So I’m not sure those were accurate.”

Another shortcoming of the infrared tool was noted by Jim Seffrin, an expert on infrared devices at the Infraspection Institute in New Jersey.

“They could have been exercising, they could be taking certain drugs. A person who’s been trying to catch a flight in an airport for which they are late—they may have run down a concourse.”

In other words, the infrared technology that White tried to sell as a fail-safe device could be little more than window dressing, something used to create the illusion of safety and action. That should alarm anyone who plans on entering an arena using these tools.

For that matter, what if a person has a high temperature? What’s the protocol. White said, “We pull ‘em aside, we see what’s going on with ‘em.” Okay, but how? And what if they are ill? Can the UFC eject that person from the arena? Is that a legal option? Can they treat the person or test them for coronavirus?

And what about the fighters who are training for not only the upcoming events in London and the two cards – Portland and Columbus – that are moving to Las Vegas? Those competitors are not isolated. Most UFC fighters train in facilities that are open not only to pro fighters, but to the public. There’s no way all the individuals who walk into a gym have been tested. Even if a fighter could sequester themselves into a small camp, they would still work with training partners while cutting weight and weakening their immune systems—a process that makes them even more susceptible to illness.

Another thing the UFC fighters must consider is the UFC insurance policy, which according to the 2011 announcement of coverage:

”...policy will cover accidental injuries suffered by athletes while training, as well as non-training incidents such as automobile accidents.”

What that policy does not mention is illness. It also does not define “while training.” Any UFC fighter who is preparing for a fight should get written definitions for those terms just in case they fall ill while training for an upcoming fight, even one outside the March-April timeframe. If illness is not covered in the insurance policy, that’s an extra layer of hazard for fighters to consider as far as continuing their workouts and preparations.

And that leads to White’s statement that fighters want to compete. Every fighter on the UFC roster wants to compete. If they don’t fight, they don’t get paid. That’s a simple calculus. No fight equals no pay. UFC fighters have no option but to compete.

White also claimed the UFC always goes “overboard” when it comes to the health and safety of its fighters. That seems demonstrably false, possibly an outright lie. The UFC does not generally administer health and safety at events. That’s generally work done by the athletic commission and some of those commissions, like Nevada, California and New Jersey do great work on that front. Others, like Virginia, where the UFC recently held an event, fall seriously short of the standards of states like California.

White bragged to ESPN, “there’s never been a death or serious injury in the UFC.” White started to say “in our sport” before catching himself and talking about how he spoke to the president and vice president. There have been deaths in MMA. Also, who defines a serious injury? Is a leg snapping in half a serious injury? Are repeated brain injuries serious? How about being taken to the hospital for a weight cut gone wrong? To many people outside the MMA bubble those would be considered serious injuries.

We’re living in uncertain and potentially dangerous times right now. There’s no reason for the UFC to make things any more perilous in pursuit of the almighty dollar. The UFC needs to follow the lead of every other sport and postpone fights. If the UFC does not do so it runs the risk of being an example of exactly what not to do during a pandemic. That’s not a place where anyone wants to be a leader.