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The UFC is contributing to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and misinformation

Karim Zidan delves into how influential UFC executives, fighters, and staff are contributing to COVID-19 misinformation.

Dana White—the longtime president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship—spent a portion of Saturday’s post-fight press conference doubling down on his belief in unfounded treatments for COVID-19.

“I don’t want to get too political and start getting into all this s***, but ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies have been around for a long time,” White said at the UFC Vegas 46 post-fight press conference. “Now all of a sudden you can’t dig them up to save your life. The doctors won’t give them to you.”

The UFC President’s comments were in response to a question about UFC color commentator and comedian Joe Rogan, who faced mounting pressure after hundreds of doctors and medical professionals signed an open letter condemning Rogan for “spreading vaccine hesitancy” and calling on Spotify—the platform that inked a $100 million deal for exclusive rights to the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast—to take action against “mass misinformation” on his show.

The open letter specifically took issue with a controversial JRE episode that featured Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist known for spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine as well as an unfounded theory that government leaders have hypnotized the public. The letter explained that “by allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.”

Beyond Dr. Malone’s appearance, Rogan has personally contributed to COVID-19 misinformation on numerous occasions, including in April 2021 when he told his millions of listeners that young, healthy people do not need the COVID-19 vaccine.

UFC 249 Spann v Alvey Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

“Are you healthy?” Rogan said on his podcast back in April 2021. “Are you a healthy person? Like, look, don’t do anything stupid, but you should take care of yourself. You should – if you’re a healthy person, and you’re exercising all the time, and you’re young, and you’re eating well, like, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”

Rogan’s unfounded comments, which were not rooted in any scientific analysis, were heard by millions of listeners, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ leading infectious diseases expert and chief medical adviser to the White House, who referred Rogan’s stance as “incorrect.” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield also criticized Rogan’s position during an interview with CNN, stating that it could impact listeners who are already hesitant about getting vaccinated.

Rogan walked back his comments the following week, insisting “I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty standup comedian who just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed.”

While Rogan was quick to shrug off his comments, he failed to acknowledge the impact his views would have on impressionable listeners who were already questioning the necessity of taking a vaccine. He remained unvaccinated at age 53, and when he eventually contracted the virus in September 2021, the comedian opted to treat his symptoms with a medley of alternative and unproven remedies such as the anti-parasitic medication ivermectin, a Z-Pak, monoclonal antibodies and a Vitamin C drip. He recovered within a matter of days, which prompted many people to consider alternative remedies instead of the FDA approved vaccine.

White was among those who listened to Rogan. After testing positive for COVID-19 last month, the UFC president followed his color commentator’s footsteps by taking a cocktail of doctor-prescribed medication. Five days later, White declared himself COVID-free and thanked “Dr. Joe Rogan” for the supposed medical advice.

“Joe Rogan is a brilliant guy and he talks to the most brilliant people out there,” White told TMZ in December. “He studies, he does his homework on all this stuff, and it’s a fact that this works.”

While Ivermectin is a useful anti-parasitic that was initially developed for the treatment of worms and parasites in animals, there is no high-quality evidence that ivermectin is effective against COVID-19. Ivermectin has been found useful in treating human diseases relating to worms and parasites, but parasites are not the same thing as viruses, and COVID-19 was caused by a virus. And though some early studies showed possible benefits, none of the recent high-quality trials where results have been reviewed and assessed have supported these findings. Therefore, the drug has not been deemed safe or effective in combating COVID-19.

COLOMBIA-HEALTH-VIRUS Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting the use of ivermectin to treat the virus, White continued to broadcast his thoughts across the UFC platform, even going so far as to argue with a journalist who rightfully noted that the UFC head honcho was not a doctor. White replied that while he was not a doctor, he “took [the alternative medication] and they both worked for me, so why shouldn’t I be able to take them again?”

It is worth noting that White’s comments in support of Rogan and unfounded COVID-19 remedies were promoted across several of the biggest far-right channels on Telegram, including a QAnon channel with more than 120,000 followers and another page associated with former White House advisor and white supremacist Steve Bannon.

White and the UFC have also gained popularity among American conservatives due to White’s determination to hold events during the early days of the pandemic. White made appearances on Sean Hannity and Candace Owens ‘shows, where he chalked up the UFC’s success during the pandemic to the fact that “we never talked about COVID and we never talked about politics.” Both statements are categorically false.

However, what White did actually do was instill a laissez-faire attitude when it came to how the organization would handle the COVID-19 vaccine. In August 2021, White proudly announced that the UFC would not be instituting a vaccine mandate for its staff or fighters, insisting that he “would never tell another human being what to do with their body.”

“You wanna get vaccinated? Get vaccinated. If you don’t, that’s your decision, your body.”

Several months later, as news surfaced that international fighters will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the U.S., White suggested that the UFC would circumvent this obstacle by holding more events in Abu Dhabi, adding that he thinks ‘Fight Island’ is going to be hopping again.”

White’s vaccine stance was met with praise from fighters such as Sean O’Malley, who reacted by saying “that’s so cool…we’re so lucky,” on his podcast. Other fighters such as Tunisia’s Mounir Lazzez, who, as of October 2021, is unvaccinated, hope the UFC spends more time in Abu Dhabi since he will not be able to enter the U.S..

UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Conor McGregor, the UFC’s biggest star, also contributed to the vaccine discussion when he tweeted in December that “forced vaccination is a war crime” in response to proposed restrictions and mandatory vaccinations in Europe following the spread of the Omicron variant.

“You think forcing people to inject something into their body is not a crime? McGregor said in a tweet he would later delete. “People must have the right to choose. An attempt to mandate vaccines is coming, per the head of the EU. I cannot agree to this. I know our lap dogs in power will just do as they are told.”

Despite White’s lax stance on vaccine mandates, it is worth noting that the UFC recently eased testing policies on vaccinated individuals participating in their events.

Nevertheless, there are seemingly endless examples of influential UFC executives, fighters, and staff contributing to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Some are using their own platforms to spread unfounded information, while others, such as White, are broadcasting their objections directly on UFC programming. Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that the UFC, more than most other sports entities, has contributed to the epidemic of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.

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