“Part of growing up is realizing that not everybody is going to love you.”
I came across that quote recently while reading the autobiography of legendary newsman Dan Rather. It was in the context of Rather’s journey to become the respected veteran journalist he is today. Basically, he means that in his line of work, you’re going to make people mad and you will make some enemies.
You know who else is experiencing that right now? Veteran mixed martial arts journalist Ariel Helwani. You have to be living under a rock to not know what happened between him and the UFC. To make a long story short, the UFC kicked out Helwani and two of his colleagues from the website MMA Fighting, E. Casey Leydon and Esther Lin, prior to the main event at UFC 199 last weekend.
Reportedly, the UFC (Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta in particular) were upset that Helwani broke the news on Twitter that the UFC was bringing back Brock Lesnar to compete at UFC 200 before the UFC could announce it during the evening’s broadcast. To add insult to injury, the UFC banned Helwani, Leydon and Lin for life from all UFC events.
The UFC was rightly criticized for this decision. Listen, no one’s been more critical of Helwani in the past than me. When he regularly appeared on UFC programming, I assumed his paychecks were coming from the UFC and Zuffa and I began derisively calling him “Zuffa’s PR guy.” As it turns out, I was probably only half-right.
The fact Fox Sports 1 fired Helwani (allegedly at the UFC’s behest) earlier this year showed me that maybe he wasn’t as buddy-buddy with White and the UFC as I thought. I have no problem admitting I was wrong, and when Helwani interviewed with Dan Patrick on his radio show on June 6, it seemed to confirm the narrative that Helwani was just doing his job as a journalist when the UFC ejected him and his colleagues at UFC 199 and banned them for life, totally unprovoked.
However, the UFC rescinded their ban on Helwani on June 6, albeit via a very passive-aggressive and condescending statement:
— tytsports (@tytsports) June 7, 2016
Helwani then went into more detail about his relationship with the UFC on his weekly show, The MMA Beat, and confirmed that he occasionally violated ethics journalists are sworn to uphold while covering the UFC. For example, Helwani admitted to periodically receiving paychecks signed by Zuffa when he appeared on Fox Sports 1 pre-fight and post-fight shows (if you’re not familiar with journalist ethics, receiving paychecks from the organization you’re reporting on is a major no-no).
The UFC is hardly the only sports organization to try and control the news that’s reported about it. The NFL and NBA are notorious for this; you only need to turn on ESPN at any given time and see the soft “news” that’s peddled about those two leagues, thanks to ESPN’s way-too-cozy relationship with the NFL and NBA.
Should Helwani be strung up by his hamstrings for admitting he was paid by Zuffa while reporting on the UFC? No. But it puts a huge dent in the narrative that he’s just the innocent, independent journalist being bullied by the UFC. Helwani also admitted to other violations of journalism like seeking approval from Ronda Rousey on questions he wanted to ask Travis Browne, Rousey’s boyfriend, for an interview that would discuss their relationship.
Basically participating in MMA payola and getting your source to approve your questions before you even ask them goes against everything any serious journalist believes in. While the UFC restored Helwani’s credentials, I doubt his confession will do much to improve relations with White and Fertitta, and maybe that’s how it should be.
I’ve also often said that writing about MMA seems to be like the Wild West. It’s not like the NFL or NBA, where there appears to be at least some kind of journalist hierarchy (albeit not much credibility). It’s not surprising that UFC treated Helwani and his MMA Fighting colleagues like it did; the organization (and White in particular) is extremely hyper-sensitive to criticism and tries desperately to always control the message.
However, Helwani is not without blame, either. He was doing his job when he reported that the UFC brought back Brock Lesnar. But he did not do his job when he received paychecks from Zuffa while reporting on the UFC and when he sought prior approval on questions for an interview.
If the UFC hopes to achieve the mainstream sports credibility it obviously craves, it can’t bully reporters trying to do their job. But reporters have to resist the temptation to trade access for credibility. If either of those things happen, then there are no winners. Only losers.