Mo Lawal release underscores Zuffa's need for code of conduct
Once again, William Shakespeare turns out to be right. Sorrows really do come not as single spies, but in battalions. Just ask "King" Mo Lawal, the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion who was beset this week by a few different battalions of sorrow, some of which he helped create, and some of which he didn't. He started the day as a fighter with an uncertain future, and
Such is life as an MMA fighter on the Zuffa roster. Such is life when you live and work at the cryptic whims of an organization known for dispensing an uneven brand of justice.
By any metric, Tuesday was a bad day for Lawal. He went before the Nevada State Athletic Commission to offer an "answer" for his positive steroid test at a Strikeforce event in Las Vegas in January, where he beat Lorenz Larkin via TKO. That answer consisted mainly of blaming the positive test result on an over-the-counter workout supplement that he bought at a Max Muscle store in California, and then pleading for leniency rather than outright forgiveness.
The NSAC remained unconvinced -- not to mention displeased with Lawal's failure to mention his lingering knee injury and supplement use on a pre-fight questionnaire -- and so it sent him home with a $39,000 fine and a nine-month suspension to think about while he continues to fight a serious staph infection. Like I said, bad day.
But where things went from regular bad to country music bad was when Lawal took to Twitter to vent his frustration at NSAC commissioner Pat Lundvall, who, during the hearing, made a slightly condescending attempt to establish that Lawal knew what he was signing on that pre-fight questionnaire.
"You signed this questionnaire after it was filled out, Mr. Lawal, did you not?" Lundvall asked. "Can you understand English? Can you read English?"
This exchange came after Lawal -- a Tennessee-born graduate of Oklahoma State -- had been answering the commission's questions for nearly 10 minutes. Just maybe his English proficiency should have been considered established by this point. But that's not what Lundvall was really trying to get at, and anybody who's ever been lectured by a traffic cop knows it. We've all played this game before with parents or teachers or authority figures who love being authority figures a little too much. The old "Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?" routine is not a rhetorical device one employs in respectful conversation with an equal. It's something you do only when you know the other person has to sit there and take it.
Lundvall knew Lawal could speak English. What she wanted to establish was that he'd knowingly signed a pre-fight questionnaire that didn't tell the whole truth, and she chose perhaps the least polite road to get there. That's on Lundvall. What happened next was all Lawal.
"I honestly feel like Lundvall was a racist b---- asking me if I can read or speak english," Lawal wrote on Twitter after the hearing.
Hours later, Zuffa fired him. An official statement from Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker blamed the outcome of the NSAC hearing and Lawal's "subsequent reaction." In other words, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to call a state athletic commission official a profane, misogynist term on a popular social media platform. Lawal should have known better. He should have thought before he tweeted. He didn't, and it cost him his job.
Without a doubt, Lawal screwed up. I know him to be a good person and an intelligent one, but I also know that he tends to view the world through the lenses of race and victimization a little too much. I haven't lived his life, so I can't say if his hyper-sensitive prejudice detector is unearned. I do know that he prides himself on being a person who will speak out when he feels he's being disrespected (which, rightly or wrongly, is often), and I also know that Zuffa doesn't suffer such employees gladly. At least, not unless they're big stars, in which case they can say and do much worse things and get off with nothing more severe than a stern talking to.
This is the problem that keeps coming up as Zuffa wields its contract ax. If you're a Strikeforce or UFC fighter, there's really no way for you to know which transgression will result in which penalty. Not until it's too late.
Forrest Griffin can make rape jokes on Twitter and nothing happens. Miguel Torres does it and he gets fired (and then later re-hired). Rashad Evans can joke about child molestation at a UFC on FOX press conference, and he gets told to knock it off. "Rampage" Jackson can tout his use of testosterone and essentially beg the UFC to release him from what he claims is an unfair contract, and hey, it's just a dispute between friends. Alistair Overeem gets a suspended sentence and community service for shoving a woman in a nightclub, and it's cool. Chael Sonnen pleads guilty to federal money laundering charges, and he gets a timeout. Lawal throws a Twitter temper tantrum, and he's fired the same day.
Consistency? Forget it. In the UFC and Strikeforce, what you can get away with depends on how valuable you are to the bottom line. Lawal was a Strikeforce fighter making 80 grand to show in an organization that couldn't clear 70 grand in live gate revenue for the last card he fought on. Perhaps he should have done the math before he mouthed off on Twitter.
But once again we return to the UFC's quest for mainstream acceptance. Dana White will tell you that this sport deserves to be huge, that it should be up there with pro football and baseball and that one where the guys think they're tough for throwing a ball through a hoop. But how many NFL players get kicked out of the league for a stupid tweet? How many baseball players get barred from competing in the majors because they pissed off Bud Selig?
Zuffa, with its dual UFC and Strikeforce brands, is undoubtedly the major leagues of MMA. And Lawal has proven that he has the skills to compete at that level, maybe even be one of the best in his division there. If the UFC wants to fine or suspend him for the positive steroid test and/or the profane Twitter rant, by all means, do it. But do it the way the big leagues do it, which is to say according to a consistent policy and code of conduct that applies to every athlete equally, and which all of them know about before they screw up, rather than after.
That's not how Zuffa operates right now. It hires and fires capriciously. It applies a hazy, uneven standard that it purposefully refuses to spell out in advance. It levels completely different punishments for the exact same offense. It does whatever it wants to do to the people who bleed and sweat for it, and in turn the people who bleed and sweat for it live in fear of its arbitrary rage.
Which, maybe, is the point. I can't say for sure, just like Zuffa's fighters can't say for sure what will get them fired, or why the organization won't do itself a favor by telling them ahead of time, before there's a mess to clean up.
What I can tell you is that this is not how a major sports organization treats professional athletes. Zuffa and UFC officials keep telling us that they want to be thought of in those terms, and on that level. Maybe it's time they started acting like it.