The Bottom Line: Cause for Concern

By Todd Martin Apr 23, 2019
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It has been a rough year for mixed martial artists when it comes to accusations about their out-of-competition conduct. Over the past couple of weeks, B.J. Penn has been accused of physical and sexual assault by the mother of his children, and it became public knowledge that he is also under police investigation for allegedly threatening a neighbor with a machete.

Perhaps Penn’s greatest Octagon rival, Matt Hughes, has also been accused of domestic abuse by the mother of his children this year, while both his ex-wife and his twin brother took out orders of protection against him. These are sad and troubling developments for two of the sport’s most well-known competitors, particularly given the brain damage Hughes suffered when his truck was struck by a train in 2017.

The allegations against Penn and Hughes are the most sordid and disturbing, but they are far from the only accusations of their kind against major MMA stars. Conor McGregor was arrested last month for strong-armed robbery when he allegedly smashed a fan’s phone, and he is also under investigation for alleged sexual assault. Darren Till was arrested last week for allegedly trashing a hotel room and stealing a taxi. Meanwhile, Tony Ferguson’s wife has filed for a restraining order against him while calling for him to get mental health assistance.

When it’s just an isolated incident here or there, it’s perhaps most appropriate to focus on the individual. However, there is clearly a trend when it comes to MMA, and that trend calls for an effort by those in the sport and those who care about it to try to figure out what can be done to protect the well-being of fighters and those close them. In particular, we’ve seen mental health issues when it comes to athletes in sports that involve blows to the head.

In recent years, the most focus has been on the NFL. The book “League of Denial” detailed the personality transformation that Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster underwent following his playing career, and a recent ESPN “30 for 30” focused on the similar travails of San Diego Chargers icon Junior Seau. A study by neuropathologist Ann McKee found that of 111 brains she examined of former NFL players, 110 suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Brain damage has in turn been linked with behavioral issues.

Perhaps no sport is associated more with long-term mental decline than MMA’s rival for the most popular combat sport title: boxing. For decades, boxing legends have struggled with obvious cognitive decline as they age. The hope has always been that MMA, with grappling mixed in and without the same persistent volume of sub-concussive blows, will have fewer tragedies over time than boxing did. There’s reason to believe that will be the case, but this year has not been a reassuring one on that front.

It’s going to take a long time to figure out with any semblance of precision how much full-contact fighting increases risk of long-term brain issues. We simply don’t know nearly enough yet about how an organ as complex as the human brain functions and how its various processes are tied together. Beyond that, there are so many variables when it comes to the careers of fighters. The nature of the sport is going to tend to attract risk takers and individuals who aren’t all that averse to physical confrontation. Training plays a big role, and different training camps have widely divergent approaches to preparation.

Putting aside the physical factors, just the stress of a career that involves continually preparing for hand-to-hand combat with a world-class athlete who spent weeks concentrating on how to defeat you has to create tremendous psychological strain. Georges St. Pierre spoke of that when announcing his retirement in 2013. Even if there’s still much to be learned about the connection between MMA and long-term brain injuries, MMA clearly has a problem in this regard. The rash of troubling stories shouldn’t be fodder for comedy but rather should serve as a call to think about the problem and try to tackle it.

There are plenty of potential ways to attempt to assist fighters dealing with mental health issues. For example, the Ultimate Fighting Championship could offer free and anonymous therapy for past or present fighters who request it. That would encourage fighters who feel like they may be experiencing problems to talk with a professional to help them work through those issues or to get additional assistance. World Wrestling Entertainment has offered free rehabilitation for former wrestlers, a similar program designed to help those in need.

Another way to help address the problem is by encouraging those around fighters to bring it up when they see early warning signs. Ferguson’s wife, Cristina, provided a service to him and other fighters by doing just that. It’s surely embarrassing for the individual, but it is much better to have the subject come up when there are early signs rather than when others become victims of violence.

A final way to attempt to reduce the sort of problems that have been so common this year is a harder one: to focus first on providing help when someone is acting out in violent ways. This is difficult particularly as behavior gets more abhorrent because nobody wants to excuse violence or give the impression that the victim isn’t valued.

Turning our backs on people facing mental health issues and treating them like pariahs after they do harm to others is a natural reaction. However, the practical effect is to make future problems more likely because these athletes aren’t offered help and are less likely to feel worthy of it even if brain trauma has affected important cognitive abilities for them. They are still responsible for their actions both in terms of the criminal law and in terms of societal judgment, but trying to figure out how to best ensure they can live happy and productive lives as they get older is the most important thing, not only for them but for those close to them.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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