Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Commentary: MMA Education Necessary!

Good friend of our Coalition, Justin Klein, published an important assessment on the need to educate mainstream media as to what the professional sport of mixed martial arts actually is if we hope to affect voters, who in turn will affect our elected officials.
... I think there is room for improvement in the MMA legalization effort. Economic benefit to the state alone may influence some politicians, but it is clear that there has to be an understanding about the sport, the safety record, the regulations in place, the need to curb unregulated “underground” fighting in the state etc. within the local non-MMA media before we can expect the voters in New York to voice their support for the bill.
Read Justin Klein's entire article here at MMA Payout

I could not agree with Justin more. There are several recent examples of just how ignorant the mainstream media is when it comes to mixed martial arts coverage; and how disinterested they (the editors and writers) are in providing proper coverage, gaining the proper education, and doing the proper research. Of course there are exceptions, but the norm is not encouraging.

On January 13th, the UFC held press conference at New York's Madison Square Garden [see my editorial here]. As expected, the presser was packed with those in the know (the MMA media) as well as many reporters from the mainstream media. What resulted from the presser were several stories, news items, articles, etc., covering the UFC's press conference and the effort to legalize MMA in New York.

Let's look at some examples:

In this article by Carl Campanile of the New York Post, the headline reads MSG goes to the mat for ultimate fighting.

Once again our sport is labeled ultimate fighting. Nearly twenty years have passed since the birth of our sport, the latter decade of which has seen the near ubiquitous use of the unified rules with regulation in 44 states, and we still have to tolerate misrepresentation of our professional sport by writers like Campanile.

Our sport has a name. It is called mixed martial arts. Let me clarify something here once and for all folks, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is not the championship of ultimate fighting. It is the ultimate in fighting championships. The difference may seem semantic, but it is far from a minor point. The UFC is a brand, as is Strikeforce, M1 Global, Bellator, and many other smaller promotions like King of the Cage, Ring of Combat, Ring of Fire, etc. All of these brands represent the professional sport of mixed martial arts, not ultimate fighting.

Campanile's opening remarks go on to state:

The head of Madison Square Garden Sports said yesterday he's ready to spar with Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature to allow controversial professional cage fighting at The World's Most Famous Arena.
Here we are again at another educational moment. For the vast majority of people mixed martial arts is not controversial. Labels like these will never help to legalize the professional sport of mixed martial arts. I would argue that mixed martial arts in New York is far from controversial. In fact, most voters and fans are apathetic on the issue...as are most politicians unfortunately. The vocal opposition in Albany is exactly that...more vocal. They also happen to be in the minority. This is the type of coverage that the mainstream media willfully neglects so they may push their stories about "controversial" and mis-labeled sports so they can get more readers and hits on their websites.

Just as our professional sport is not controversial, it is also not called cage fighting. Again, the term refers to a particular venue in which the professional sport of mixed martial arts may take place. In fact, mixed martial arts can take place in a cage, a ring, or on a mat. According to last year's New York State Assembly Bill AO2009, the venue for mixed martial arts is described as follows:

Rings or Fighting Areas: No professional combative sports match or exhibition or training activity shall be permitted in any ring or fighting area unless such ring or fighting area has been inspected and approved by the commission. The commission shall prescribe standard acceptable size and quality requirements for rings or fighting areas and appurtenances thereto.
Not once is the term cage used to describe our sport's arena. The continued use of the term cage fighting is outright inaccurate and harmful. But these are issues that any good journalist should know if they take the time to research the topics they write about? Right?

Here is how New York 1 News covered the story:

"They call themselves ultimate fighters. But do these tough guys have what it takes to win in Albany and legalize the sport in the Empire State?"


"Governor David Paterson proposed legalizing ultimate fighting as a way to raise money for the cash-strapped state."


"Marist Poll conducted in January of last year found that 68 percent of voters don't want ultimate fighting legalized in New York."
Aside from inaccurate terminology, what bothered me most about this piece is the lack of balanced coverage. Once again, we hear the opposition's argument that the professional sport of mixed martial arts is too violent (in the form of Assemblyman Bob Reilly) with no counter argument. Yet, NY 1 failed to note the presence of Assemblyman Dean Murray, who spoke in favor of mixed martial arts.

Furthermore, where were the facts that establish the falsehood of these opposition positions? The only supportive argument given in favor of MMA legalization was New York State's need for the financial benefits of MMA regulation. So, the lay person is left with the message that the professional sport of mixed martial arts is too violent, but we should legalize it for the money.

In this coverage by New York Post reporter Megan Paznik we again see our sport labeled as ultimate fighting in Paznik's video. The opening line of her NY Post video is as follows:

Punching and kicking below the belt may bring jobs, money, and new sports entertainment to New York City and the state if mixed martial arts competitions are approved by the New York State legislature
Those of us at the press conference were well aware that Paznik had no knowledge regarding the sport she was sent to cover for the NY Post. The end result being a story that suggests mixed martial artists are dirty fighters (punching below the belt). Yet, what is more troubling than Paznik's story is the fact that the Post chose her to cover the press conference and what little editorial oversight they showed in approving the final video.

In the days since the presser Paznik has received quite a bit of flack from MMA fans for her poor coverage of the sport. And she does deserve some criticism for not doing her research on a story she knew she was not qualified to report on. However, in my opinion, it is the NY Post editors who deserve the lion's share of the blame for not caring enough about the story to send a qualified reporter to the scene. I would add that it was disappointing to see the loss of a great teaching moment by UFC President Dana White, who was questioned by Paznik while at the podium. White had a moment, in front of the cameras to actually teach a member of the mainstream press about the sport we love. He failed to act, and in my opinion, also shares some of the blame for the resulting NY Post video.

In the end, educating the main stream press is a huge effort that needs to be tackled. I have point out stories in the past where our sport has been misrepresented. As Klein points out in his article, the media needs to be educated if we hope to have voters get the right message.

Stephen Koepfer
Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York

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