fallon-fox-1.jpgOne thing we can say about the UFC’s response to Matt Mitrione‘s rant against transgender fighter Fallon Fox on Monday is that it was as swift as it was decisive.

It was also probably a little confusing for Mitrione, who delivered his vitriolic monologue on Ariel Helwani’s “The MMA Hour” like he was sure there’d be a standing ovation at the end. When he got a very different response from the UFC, which said it was “appalled” by Mitrione’s remarks and deemed them “offensive and wholly unacceptable” when it announced the suspension of his contract a few hours later, one can only imagine the shock he must have felt.

Remember, this wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark in an interview that strayed into unexpected territory. This was Mitrione’s semi-regular segment. It was his idea to talk about Fox. He wrote this stuff down. The first part anyway, before he was asked by a genuinely curious Helwani why he hated Fox so much. Then the really ugly stuff came out. The word “sociopath” was used. The phrase “disgusting freak” made an appearance. Just in case we were still wondering whether he really meant it, he followed it up by declaring, “And I mean that.”

Somewhere in a Las Vegas office building, a Zuffa executive’s ulcer throbbed out a warning.

Thanks to the magic of Twitter and Internet comments, I know that Mitrione isn’t the only one who feels strongly about Fox’s participation in women’s MMA. I also know that there are a lot of fight fans who don’t think Mitrione deserved to be reprimanded for his remarks. After all, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan voiced his opposition to Fox’s fighting career on his podcast, and a lot of people agreed with him. Mitrione was one of those people, and he even referenced Rogan’s podcast on the subject when explaining why he decided to take this on. Rogan didn’t get into trouble with the UFC, so what gives? Can’t a fighter have an opinion anymore?

The answer is yes, but there’s a difference between having an opinion and being aggressively hateful about it. Mitrione’s apparent inability to understand that difference is what got him in trouble here.

I can understand why some people don’t think Fox should be allowed to compete in women’s MMA. It’s a complicated issue. Other sports’ governing bodies have looked at it and decided that it would be unfair to keep transgender athletes out – to “blackball” them, as Mitrione said he hopes the sport of MMA will do to Fox – but then professional cage fighting is not quite the same as golf, and we all know it. We can have an open and honest debate this. We can also have that debate without being jerks.

It’s reasonable for people to want more information on what, if any physical advantages Fox might have as a result of living as a biological male for over three decades. It’s reasonable to talk about what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. It’s also reasonable for people to conclude that they just don’t understand what would make someone want to transition from one gender to another. But just because you don’t understand it, that doesn’t make him or her a “disgusting freak.”

Mitrione clearly thought he was being at least a little bit funny here. What he forgot is that comedy becomes difficult to pull off when you’re operating from a position of strength as a straight, white, male professional athlete in a society that privileges all those things and attacking someone who’s already been buried under a mountain of crap just for existing. That’s why it’s easier to craft jokes about the President of the United States than it is about impoverished children. If mean-spirited comedy is going to be your thing, attack up.

But let’s think about Fox’s situation here for a second. Anybody who starts by assuming that she transitioned from male to female, underwent gender reassignment surgery and years of hormone treatment, all just to be awesome at women’s sports is not thinking this through. To change your gender in our society is to invite all manner of vitriol, and not just from strangers on the Internet. Your family might not ever understand it or accept you. You might lose all your friends. You might go through the rest of your life with a certain segment of the population constantly regarding you as a “disgusting freak.” Those are the risks, and transgender people understand them before they make that transition. That they do it anyway should tell us how strong the force that motivates it is. Do you really think someone would do all that just because they wanted to beat up women?

It’s one thing to say that you think a transgendered athlete has inherent physical advantages that are unfair and cannot be negated. I don’t know if that’s the case with Fox, but it’s a point worth discussing. By all means, let’s have that discussion. I’ll bring some snacks. But when you make the leap to assuming that a transgender athlete is necessarily a sick freak for wanting to compete in the same sport you do – when you’ve taken to just yelling about your own prejudices, in other words – that’s when you’ve opted out of the discussion portion of the evening. The doorman will see you out.

Should Mitrione have known that these remarks would run afoul of the UFC’s code of conduct? Probably, but we can’t act like those lines aren’t at least a little bit blurry. After all, UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, the man who is supposed to be mentoring fighters and keeping them in line with the company code of conduct, could very recently be heard at a UFC fan Q&A referring to Fox as “it.” That’s nowhere near as aggressively vitriolic as Mitrione’s remarks, but you could see how Mitrione might have heard that and concluded that the UFC wouldn’t mind if he took it up a notch. Now he knows different.

What I wonder is, does he know better? Has he learned the difference between expressing an opinion and going out of his way to bash someone lower down on the societal totem pole? And, if the UFC follows the usual game plan of prodding him into an apology and getting him to do some work for and/or donate to some charity as a penance, will that teach him anything?

I hope so, because as an MMA fan I really hate it when the representatives for our sport behave in a way that only confirms the worst stereotypes. You know that when Fox decided to become a pro fighter, she considered the possibility of this very reaction. You know she pictured what would happen if those higher up in the sport turned against her and spouted all the usual hateful stuff in public. Wouldn’t it have been great if those fears turned out to be completely unfounded? Wouldn’t it have said something if, even when people debated whether she should be licensed to fight, they did it without being exactly the kind of prejudiced jerks she expected them to be?

I guess it’s too late for that now. Maybe next time.

(Pictured: Fallon Fox)

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