ESPN wants to make a lot of money. Many people do. It’s the compromise part that’s sometimes difficult. It’s when something so awful occurs that in total, coldblooded, unyielding pursuit of the cash you ignore that terrible thing. Just act like it didn’t happen. Not your responsibility. Just grab the big check and run.
That’s what ESPN is doing now when it comes to the ugly, despicable, bigoted case of UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland, who this week, while speaking to the media prior to Saturday’s UFC 297, went on an anti-LGBTQ rant after a reporter asked about his previous claims that having a gay son meant he failed as a father.
"You ask me some stupid sh*t like that? Go f*ck yourself."
— MMA Junkie (@MMAJunkie) January 17, 2024
What Strickland said was obviously wrong (more on what that was exactly in a moment). What’s most shocking isn’t that there are anti-gay and anti-trans bigots in the world. We know those people are out there. Small, insecure, bullies and tiny, tiny people. What’s more shocking was ESPN’s reaction to it. Let me explain.
After reading about what Strickland said, I sent an email to one of the ESPN PR representatives who works with the UFC. I asked a simple question: Would ESPN be putting out any kind of statement denouncing what Strickland said?
The response: “I’d suggest you speak with UFC since Strickland is a UFC employee and they handle athlete relations.”
Did you hear that sound?
That was ESPN washing its hands of this sordid mess.
Sean Strickland at UFC 297 media day.
ESPN can’t have it multiple ways. The network can’t make money off advertising revenue from its seven-year contract with the UFC worth about $300 million per year, and then when an athlete does what Strickland did, bury its head in that cash. With that money comes some semblance of responsibility.
All ESPN has to say is it doesn’t condone that type of behavior and language. It’s that simple.
Think of it this way: What do you think would happen if a white NFL player, just days before he and his team were set to play on ESPN’s Monday night broadcast, repeatedly called Black Americans racial slurs during a press conference? The network would address it in numerous ways. They would never let it go unmentioned. Various ESPN properties would obliterate that player.
But a UFC bully attacks a marginalized community and there’s basically crickets from ESPN.
I don’t expect the UFC to do the right thing. But doesn’t ESPN have a higher standard? Why is a media superpower so afraid to blast this type of hatred?
And I understand it’s not ESPN’s duty to comment on every remark every athlete that appears on its air makes. But there are certain moments when that is indeed required, and this is one of them. ESPN is partners with the UFC, and the fight this weekend isn’t just some small event. It’s a huge deal.
I’ve made mistakes and said dumb things, but if I ever went on any type of rant like that, numerous news organizations and other journalists would condemn it. It wouldn’t matter if we worked at the same places or not.
What exactly did Strickland say? Among other things, in what was goon-like behavior against a journalist who asked about Strickland’s past anti-trans attacks, Strickland criticized the UFC for partnering with Bud Light. Extremists launched an anti-trans boycott of the beermaker.
“Here’s the thing about Bud Light, 10 years ago, to be trans was a mental (expletive) illness,” Strickland said. “And now, all of a sudden, people like you have (expletive) weaseled your way in the world. You are an infection. You are the definition of weakness. Everything that is wrong with the world is because of (expletive) you.”
He added: “And the best thing is the world’s not buying it. The world’s not buying your (expletive)…you’re (expletive) peddling. The world is not saying, ‘You know what? You’re right. (Expletive) chicks have (expletive).’ The world’s not saying that. The world’s saying, ‘No, there are two genders. I don’t want my kids being taught about who they could (expletive) in school. I don’t want my kids being taught about their sexual preference.’”
All ESPN has to say is: this is terrible. We don’t condone it.
But they won’t because the money’s too good.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 297.