n Saturday night, the Ultimate Fighting Championship became the first major organization to hold a live sports event in the US during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, rather than being hailed as an entertaining night of cagefighting designed to distract sports fans in self-isolation, the focus has instead fallen on the UFC’s questionable protocols, and the lengths the promotion is willing to take to ensure that no one involved in the event can speak out.
On Friday night – less than 24 hours before the start of UFC 249 – reports emerged that Ronaldo Souza, had tested positive for Covid-19, along with his two cornermen. His bout with Uriah Hall was subsequently canceled, but at that point, the damage had been done. Souza had been spotted walking around the hotel and interacting with fighters over the previous days, and had even fist-bumped UFC president Dana White during the weigh-ins, albeit with gloves on.
In an attempt to salvage the situation, the UFC released a statement confirming the positive tests and claiming that the organization’s “response to this development is indicative of the effectiveness of the health and safety measures UFC has put in place.” Yet, despite the spin, the glaring weaknesses in the UFC’s pandemic protocols would only become more prevalent come fight night.
The UFC’s health and safety measures included testing everyone involved in the show – fighters, trainers, officials, and even media– for Covid-19. UFC also limited the arena to “essential” personnel, required athletes and staff to participate in medical screenings and temperature checks, and expected everyone involved to follow social distancing guidelines. However, social distancing was only used selectively during the event. While the commentators were seated at separate tables, they stood side-by-side at the start of the broadcast to introduce the show. None wore masks, including UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, who also conducted post-fight interviews with the fighters and even shook their hands. White was present in the front row, also without a mask.
While the UFC’s protocols were loosely applied on fight night, the organization covered its bases and eliminated its own legal risk by making fighters and staff sign waivers that ban them from criticizing the coronavirus protocols in place for the event. If fighters violate this provision “whether relating to Covid-19 or otherwise,” the UFC reserves the right to “revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won by the Participant.” The news was first reported by Yahoo Sports, who obtained a copy of the legal waiver. When confronted with the clause, White played down its importance.
“First of all, there’s something in the contract for disparagement. There’s a disparagement clause in there that’s in all of our contracts,” White said when asked by Yahoo Sports to comment. “If you came out and had something critical to say about the testing that was true, that wouldn’t be disparagement.”
However, the New York Times countered White’s statement and explained that “nothing in the agreement obtained by the Times says that only untrue statements can be punished.”
The waiver also stated that “Participants” in the events cannot hold the UFC liable if they end up having “severe and permanent damage to health” or other outcomes “not limited to, death, fever, weight loss, irreversible pulmonary, respiratory and/or neurological system damage, mental or emotional distress, temporary or permanent disability, loss of income, loss of employment, loss of financial or other opportunities, medical expenses, which may or may not be covered by insurance, cleaning expenses, mandatory self-quarantine, loss of licenses.”
It is not only UFC fighters and staff who agreed to sign. ESPN reported that media members were also required to sign the waiver, thus ensuring that none of those present at the event would be able to report critically on the UFC’s health and safety measures. In short, the journalists at the event who were expected to report on the UFC’s pandemic protocols actually waived their right to do so – a significant blow to their ability to do their jobs. It also all but guaranteed that the UFC would not be held accountable for any missteps on its part.
That lack of transparency is a huge concern. To date, we have no understanding of the protocols in place when a fighter tests positive for Covid-19 (which happened) and what quarantine procedures are mandated for fighters and staff after the events. Coupled with the promotion using a waiver to silence the fighters, reporters and potential whistleblowers, it is clear that UFC 249 took place under questionable circumstances.
While UFC 249 was supposed to lay the blueprint for other major sports organizations to hold events during the pandemic, the event instead serves as an example of the lengths leagues may go to to put on shows. Despite the UFC’s testing procedures, and its limited number of competitors, a fighter still tested positive for Covid-19, and the only thing protecting the UFC is a legal waiver that no athlete or journalist should be forced to sign.