Marine Corps pressured to end sponsorship of Ultimate Fighting

Tom Olmscheid/AP file photo

A months-old campaign to pressure the Marine Corps to end its three-year-old sponsorship of the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship has reached the highest level at the Defense Department.

A coalition of Nevada-based union members, veterans, gay rights activists and anti-violence organizations recently delivered a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- care of his wife at their California policy institute -- asking him to direct the Marines to cease working with promoters of cage-fighting events. “We believe the homophobic and sexist statements of people associated with the UFC are deeply at odds with the values of the Marine Corps and conflict with the Defense Department’s stated commitment to tolerance and respect for diversity,” the letter said.

Petitions signed by more than 10,000 people were delivered to Marine Corps recruiting stations in Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami; Missoula, Mt.; New York; Phoenix; San Diego; Seattle; and Washington, D.C., as well as to officers at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, organizers said. The protesters object to the Marines’ spending $2 million on recruitment ads featuring the cage-fighting events on television and YouTube.

The campaign is coordinated by UNITE HERE, whose membership of culinary, hotel and casino workers has been struggling for years to organize workers at casinos owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or UFC.

Using the theme “Unfit for the Corps,” the campaign has assembled a video documenting comments made in interviews, broadcasts and Twitter dispatches by UFC promoters or participants considered offensive to gays and women. They include jokes about rape and threats by participants and threats to commit violence against journalists as well as references to acts by Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University football coach recently convicted of serial child molestation.

“Taxpayer money should not be used to support homophobia, misogyny and hate speech, in any form,” says the website, which is backed by groups such as the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Protect Our Defenders and Veterans For Peace.

In July, Marine veterans working with the organizers sent a protest letter to Marine Commandant James Amos saying they were offended by “commercials that juxtapose images of Marine Corps soldiers training and fighting for our country with UFC fighters….The Marine Corps should not trivialize service to our country, which entails tremendous sacrifice, by comparing military service with cage fighting for money.”

The Marines responded with a letter from R.J. Peterson, assistant chief of staff for advertising at the corps' Quantico, Va., recruiting command , saying, “Professional mixed martial arts…, like many other sports, is an excellent programming venue to reach a large portion of the Marine Corps’ enlisted and officer recruiting prospects—young men, ages 17-24.”

However, he added, “the issues articulated in your correspondence regarding inappropriate conduct, alleged or substantiated, of UFC competitors and leadership are an area of concern that has been addressed via our contracted ad agency with UFC.”

Marine Corps public affairs spokesman Maj. John Caldwell gave Government Executive a similar statement. “The UFC has been forthright in addressing the issue and [we] have proactive measures in place to deal with those isolated transgressions,” he said. “We continue to monitor the issue and evaluate the effectiveness of our advertising and lead generation activities; additionally, we reserve the option to respond accordingly.”

UNITE HERE regarded the Marines’ July response as unsatisfactory and proceeded to approach the Defense secretary though his wife, Sylvia, at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez confirmed to Government Executive that the department “has received the letter and will respond as appropriate. The Marine Corps has expressed its concern to the UFC regarding the issues raised in the petition, and has confirmed UFC is addressing them. The Marine Corps will continue to monitor the issue.”

UFC management views the controversy in the context of its ongoing clashes with UNITE HERE over organizing workers at the company’s casinos. A spokeswoman said in a statement that “as a loyal supporter of the men and women who serve and protect our country, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is proud of its three-year partnership with the Marines and would like to set the record straight regarding recent disparaging remarks by an outside group with ulterior motives.”

UFC says the UNITE HERE culinary local has spent a decade attacking and “harassing” majority owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta over workplace issues in their casinos, and that the dispute with the Marines is a tactic in their ongoing battle to unionize casino workers.

“There unfortunately have been isolated instances where athletes have made insensitive or inappropriate comments,” the statement continued. “ The UFC and [its affiliated company] STRIKEFORCE through their code of conduct, do not condone this behavior, and in no way is it reflective of the company values.”

UFC President Dana White, the statement said, has apologized for his inappropriate conduct. “The connection between the UFC and the Armed Forces runs deep,” it continued. “The company makes all of its UFC programming available to troops around the world through the Armed Forces Network, free of charge. We have hosted events at Ft. Hood, Ft. Bragg and Miramar raising over $12 million for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.”

UFC and STRIKEFORCE require corporate employees and independent fighter contractors to participate in a mandatory course in sensitivity training and host regular fighter summits to tackle these important issues, the statement said. UNITE HERE cites a poll on the official blog of the Marine Corps showing that 65 percent of respondents as of July 31 agreed that the Marines should cut ties with UFC if veterans complained. The group plans to raise the issue with members of Congress.

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