January 24, 2022

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UFC fight cancellation shows sports face public opinion challenges

[This is an excerpt from the April 10, 2020, edition of the Yahoo Sports morning newsletter. Tap here to subscribe for free and get the best sports news delivered to you every weekday morning.]

“Fight Island is real.”

When someone writes the history of sports in a time of coronavirus, Dana White’s proclamation on Thursday — part defiant howl, part action-movie tag line — will surely rank as one of the most memorable quotes … for one reason or another.

White, the president of the UFC, had been working for weeks to pull off UFC 249, a mixed-martial-arts spectacular, amidst a pandemic. Its locale was secret — first it was “somewhere on earth,” then the mysterious “Fight Island,” and finally revealed to be on tribal land in California.

On its face, the very idea seemed absurd in the era of coronavirus — not a whole lot of social distancing is possible in the Octagon — but White is so determined and bullheaded that it almost looked like he’d pull off his fight … right up until the moment he didn’t.

White conceded defeat Thursday, acknowledging that corporate forces beyond his control — forces from “the highest level” of ESPN and its parent company, a little outfit by the name of Disney, as well as the state of California — basically ordered him to stand down. That order, in effect, opened up a second front in sports’ battle to return.

Dana White met an opponent he couldn’t topple. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Now, sports leagues aren’t just fighting to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. They’re navigating the choppy, uncertain waters of public opinion. Are sports a necessary comfort or an unnecessary luxury? Is holding an event a public service or an insensitive money grab?

The answer to those questions differs from person to person. Worth noting, though: an informal Yahoo Sports survey Thursday night favored postponement over business-as-usual by almost 3-to-1.

And there’s your clue as to why Disney ordered White to shut down his fight. Executives in the business of serving the public understand that the spectacle of a UFC event at a time when the United States is still sustaining significant new infections, hospitalizations and deaths would be the biggest sports PR debacle since Pete Rozelle played NFL games just days after JFK’s assassination.

The simple truth is this: bold declarations aren’t enough. Desire to put on a show isn’t enough. Even quarantining fighters to ensure a completely virus-free event isn’t enough. Right now, as hospitals strain under unprecedented loads and health-care providers struggle to stay ahead of the avalanche of infections, sports just aren’t a priority for a lot of people. Sports in general — and Dana White in particular — will come roaring back, but for now, many Americans would prefer they stay on the sidelines.

Stay safe this weekend, friends, and we’ll see you back here Monday.

[To subscribe to the Yahoo Sports newsletter and get the best sports news free every weekday morning, tap here.]


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at [email protected]

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