It’s Not “Just An Act” — That Athlete Is Just A Bad Person

When I was in third grade, my mom gave me a piece of advice about bullies that always stuck with me: “They’re just doing it for attention. It doesn’t matter if the attention is good or bad, they just want you to look at them.”

For a group of eight-year-olds, this seemed fair. It’s weird, however, to see people applying it to justify the behavior of grown men in combat sports.

There’s no denying that “call-out culture” does get more eyes on fighters, stirring up drama before fights and matches and incentivizing potential opponents to agree to duke it out. The idea that two people want to beat each other up for money seems like it should be dramatic enough as it is, but I get it — raising the stakes by packing some emotion behind the punches gets more views.

At some point, though, we have to ask if the controversial behavior of fighters (and yes, that includes jiu-jitsu athletes) is really just an act designed to get fans invested, or if it’s just an exclamation point tacked onto their real personality.

Perhaps the most obvious example in recent memory is Colby Covington, who has long made a name for himself not only for his skills in the UFC octagon but also for being That Guy people love to hate. Covington is known for his controversial comments, but following his defeat of Tyron Woodley over the weekend, he took things to a whole new level when he made racist comments toward Kamaru Usman in a post-fight interview.

After taking a call from Donald Trump, Covington got into a heated verbal exchange with Usman, who was born in Nigeria. During the exchange, Covington said, “Who did you get a call from? Did you get a call from, freaking, your little tribe? Did they give you some smoke signals for you? You’re a joke, Marty Fakenewsman.”

This, of course, was just the latest of Covington’s problematic comments directed at Black athletes. After his fight with Woodley, he called his opponent a “Marxist” for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, adding, “He stands for criminals. He hates America, and that’s why he got broke tonight.”

The comments about Woodley were particularly ironic — Covington was arrested in 2010 for fourth-degree assault two years after being arrested for a DUI after his blood-alcohol level was found to be at 0.255 — over three times the legal limit.

The behavior of Covington and other athletes in combat sports is often dismissed as an “act.” Fans swear up and down that they’ve met the athletes in real life, and “they were so nice!” or “they seemed really down-to-Earth!” They have Black friends, gay friends, trans friends, a daughter, a Muslim brother-in-law, a Jewish wife. They aren’t really -ist or -phobic or anti-, they’re just doing it for attention.

Being a racist for attention, however, is just another way to be a racist.

When we see actors play the role of terrible people in movies, we want those characters to lose. We cheer for the characters who stand up to abhorrent behavior, and we hope that at the very least, the antagonists don’t achieve their goals. Even when we appreciate black-and-white villains in storylines, we can do so because we can safely assume that offscreen, they aren’t terrible people.

This doesn’t happen in BJJ and MMA. The athletes we “love to hate” are stepping onto the mats or into the cage as themselves. They are being interviewed as themselves. They are posting on social media as themselves. Then, as they’re offered better real-life opportunities and given more real-life positive press and invited to meet the real-life president, they send the message that you can be a real-life bad guy and continue to win because sports.

I don’t care how nice That Guy was to you at a seminar you paid for. I don’t care that This Dude took a photo with you and smiled and complimented your rashguard when you trained together. I don’t care that they were easy to work with, that you haven’t heard them say anything awful, that so many people have said What A Nice Guy they are. Good people don’t say racist things, and people who say racist things aren’t good people.

It’s time to stop dismissing athletes’ open, unapologetic prejudice as being an “act” or a “cry for attention.” Stop defending these people. Stop paying these people. Stop rewarding people who would be the obvious villains in any fictional story just because they know how to twist a limb the right way. As long as this behavior continues to be accepted and rewarded, we can’t pretend that the martial arts scene is a magical land free from the social problems that plague the “outside world” just because we spend time on the mats with people who are different than us.


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