There’s something curious about sports. Particularly, something curious about the way that the category of “sports” is used. It’s everywhere. It’s even in the opening quote of Andrew McGregor’s previous blog entry, which cited former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren claiming that he likes to read the sports page because it “records people’s accomplishments.” So … what am I talking about? I’m talking about a certain specie of spoken and unspoken assumptions about the stuff of sports, about what makes a sport a sport.
In fact, there seems to be a common and pervasive logic behind former Justice Warren’s equation of sport with accomplishment. A “sport,” so it goes, is a moral endeavor, an upright undertaking, set apart by its goodness, partitioned by its redemptive qualities, unsullied by its etiquette. Sporty things are “good” things, so the assumptions go. In many ways, then, sports are demarcated by what they are not—namely, “bad” things, however defined. My point? “Sports” is a political word, pregnant with normative connotations, meant to include and define, just as much as it is meant to exclude and undermine. Labels serve a social function. The act of claiming something to be a sport (or not) is significant. And the ongoing controversy around mixed martial arts is a perfect example of this.
In 1995, when John McCain, Rudolf Giuliani, and several other individuals with similar political clout launched a public campaign against the then-fledgling Ultimate Fighting Championships, it was precisely this category of “sport” that they sought to question, control, and monopolize (and perhaps even capitalize). McCain pronounced: “The UFC is a disturbing and bloody competition which places the contestants at great risk for serious injury or even death, and it should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the United States.” He continued: “ I have been an avid fan of professional boxing for over 30 years, but there is no sport in the UFC, only ugliness and rule-less brutality. The viciousness of the UFC is truly appalling [emphasis mine].” The UFC, as it were, was severely deficient in certain sporty qualities. McCain chose his words carefully here. It was “no sport.” And the lack of sport in such mixed martial arts had to do with an exploitative and jeopardizing use of human lives. These kinds of “disturbing” activities are simply un-American. Not to be confused with the civility of “professional” boxing, MMA is but an unsystematic display of primitive violence wherein the contestants needn’t abide by any kind of sporty parameters. With no social contract, life would be nasty, brutish, and short in the Octagon.
For similarly minded detractors, mixed martial arts is neither safe nor a real sport. With “science,” too, on their side, the President of the American Medical Association aligned with early critics like McCain as she publicly opined,
Far from being legitimate sports events, ultimate fighting contests are little more than human cockfights where human gladiators battle bare-knuckled until one gives up, passes out or the carnage is stopped by a doctor or a referee. The rules are designed to increase the danger to the fighters and to promote injury rather than prevent it.
Stirring Hippocrates in his grave, the (non)sport of MMA is premised on senseless harm. More akin to animalistic hostility and ancient human combat where death is the end goal, MMA is contrary to humanity, to modernity. Medical science, too, says there’s no sport here.
This medically dubious, un-American (non)sport soon found resistance with the U.S. Commerce Committee—a political body whose role, among other things, is to regulate the airing of sex and violence on television. When Leo Hindery, an open opponent of UFC, took over Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) only one day after UFC 12 on February 7, 1997, he immediately pulled the programming for future UFCs and all its paying fans. TCI’s director of communications for the western U.S. explained, “We have a right to make editorial decisions,” and “because of the level of violence in the programming, we choose to exercise discretion.” The cut times and the sweet sciences remained, though, right alongside the concussions and the gridirons. Cable sports channels aren’t for all sports. The “violence” of MMA isn’t the right kind of violence.
Somewhat ironically, however, early UFC promoters marketed their product using similar terms for which it was criticized by its faultfinders. UFC’s brutish lawlessness was self-described. Its deviant status was at least partially self-made. But nevertheless, what I’m pointing out here is a specific categorical crusade—one that highlights the social and political importance of “sport.” To fit within the taxon of “sport,” then, the thing in question must exhibit certain ethical attributes. To be a sport, it must first be sportsman-like, it must first be a good sport. To be a sport is to be legitimate. To not be a sport is … well, you get the point.
While its sporty label is thoroughly questioned, MMA is not without its backers. And, interestingly, these defenders have come to the defense of MMA by trying to show that it is an honorable endeavor with principled purposes, i.e., a “real” sport. This is a dispute for legitimacy here, and a ubiquitous notion of the “good” is informing MMA critics and advocates alike. As Mark Driscoll, lead Pastor of several Seattle-area megachurches recently theologized,
I don’t think that there’s anything purer than putting two men in a cage … and just see[ing] which man is better. And as a pastor, as a Bible teacher, I think that God made men masculine; He made humanity male and female. […] Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion. […] And we either allow that in a way that’s violent and inappropriate … or we put it together in as a viable,legitimate sport and let men be men and do what men do.
MMA is a pure expression of the teleology of Creation (when grown males participate in the sport anyway). MMA is good because it is what men were made for. Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church in New York agrees:
Like many competitive sports, mixed martial arts can be considered violent, but it’s not hateful or destructive. It teaches us how to contain and control our most violent impulses through strength, discipline and perseverance—none of which are at odds with Christianity.
MMA serves a higher purpose—it imbues life lessons to the practitioner, it highlights and harnesses our most powerful and noble human experiences and capacities. And it is like other competitive sports in that regard.
Secular defenders of MMA speak similarly. The value of MMA is redemptive. Its “violence” is not senseless. In the words of David Mamet, writer and director of the 2008 American martial arts film, Redbelt: “A fighter trains […] not only his body, but his mind to disregard his emotions and obey his will. His model of perfection is not a man immune to defeat, but one immune to the desire to accept his own imperfections.” To train to fight is to train to better one’s self. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion and two-time, two-division MMA champion, “The Prodigy” BJ Penn, agrees. He writes: “To reach the highest levels of this sport you must be on a constant quest to better yourself as a person and a fighter.” MMA is not just a sport. It is a means of self-improvement. For MMA’s defenders, the sport is much more sophisticated than the naysayers have claimed. Perhaps Tyler Durden is best paraphrased here: How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never played this sport?
“Sport” or no, as of 2010, MMA has been sanctioned in forty-three states; and such state regulation, according to one legal scholar, “has revolutionized MMA from a brutal spectacle into a legitimate and rising sport.” And he may be right. There is a reason, an underlying logic to this legal acceptance. The redeeming qualities of MMA may be more and more apparent. With a UFC fan base of around 31 million in 2009, the populace may agree. Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine seem to. For many, MMA is a real sport with something to really offer.
So here’s the kicker: just as the previous entry highlighted the importance of sports in history, this entry seeks to convey the value of paying particular attention to the historical and cultural processes by which a thing becomes (or doesn’t become) a “sport.” Labeling is a tumultuous activity. Labeling includes and excludes. What we are seeing with MMA is not merely the rise of “America’s fastest growing sport.” Surprisingly, amid such MMA controversy we see a kind of agreement, an agreement over the nature of sports, an agreement over what a sport needs to be—i.e. good. Perhaps even more surprisingly, amid such controversy we also see an agreement over what constitutes the good. A “sport” must not debase its participants, its rules must promote safety and civility, its physical rigor must display trained skill, its practice must better the individual, its harm must only be incidental or serve some redeemable purpose, etc. So, the question is, do the punches, kicks, and submissions in MMA do all that?
Adam Park is a PhD Candidate in Florida State University’s Religion Department. His current dissertation project is a history of the relationship between Christianity and MMA in America. He can be reached at email@example.com.