Marines retreat on sponsorship of Ultimate Fighting

BJ Penn, right, fights Rory MacDonald in an Ultimate Fighting Championship match in December. BJ Penn, right, fights Rory MacDonald in an Ultimate Fighting Championship match in December. Gregory Payan/AP

The Marine Corps recruiting office has ended its controversial sponsorship of Ultimate Fighting Championship events after a petition campaign protested behavior by some of the sport’s participants as sexist and pro-violence.

“The Marine Corps Recruiting Command's contracted advertising agency's partnership with UFC expired Nov. 30, 2012,” spokesman Maj. John Caldwell said Monday in an email to Government Executive. “The Marine Corps continues to stress strong personal values in markets that are viewed by young men and women who are interested in military service. Due to evolving mission requirements, budgetary constraints, marketing analysis and the recommendation of our contracted advertising agency, resources previously allocated to the endeavor have been applied to alternate priorities.”

In May, the Nevada-based UNITE HERE union formed a coalition of veterans, gay rights advocates and anti-violence organizations to launch a campaign called Unfit for the Corps. They sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and members of Congress protesting statements by some professional cage fighters in interviews and videos making light of rape and mocking gays. They demanded that the Marines discontinue their three-year, $2 million sponsorship of ultimate fighting, which the Corps saw as a fertile subculture for recruitment.

Owners of the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting organization charged that the union was disgruntled over its inability to organize the culinary workers in the company’s casinos.

UNITE eventually gathered more than 10,000 signatures and held rallies in 10 cities, according to spokesman Chris Serres. Partners included the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Protect Our Defenders, Veterans for Common Sense, Veterans for Peace, and the National Institute for Military Justice.

The Defense Department and the Marines in August agreed to research the issue, described by an officer in one letter to a lawmaker as “inappropriate conduct” by a “handful of individuals.”

Following the decision to let the sponsorship expire, the union on Monday sent a letter to executives at Anheuser-Busch asking that they too end their sponsorship of ultimate fighting. An ally in the struggle, Serres said, was Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who died Monday.

Marines Corps spokesman Caldwell placed the decision in the context of new planning guidance issued by the commandant, Gen. James Amos, “that we will ‘improve diversity representation throughout our Corps.’ ”

Caldwell said the recruiting command has “enhanced its integral role at the accession point. Via expanding advertising and community engagement opportunities, MCRC is reaching out to potential officer applicants, centers of influence, and members of society at large in order to create awareness of opportunities regarding Marine Corps officer and enlisted programs and remain connected with the American public. The command's expanded investment in accessing a diverse and representative officer corps helps generate and sustain a future force that has the cultural expertise, language skill sets and a variety of philosophies needed to meet the operational requirements of the Marine Corps.”

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