U.F.C.’s Coronavirus Plan Is Careful. Its Enforcement Has Been Spotty – Smart Media Magazine

U.F.C.’s Coronavirus Plan Is Careful. Its Enforcement Has Been Spotty

Minutes after defeating Tony Ferguson in the headline fight of U.F.C. 249 on Saturday night, Justin Gaethje stood in the octagon and examined his bloodied hands.

Gaethje, a power puncher, was being interviewed by the television analyst Joe Rogan, and he offered some understandable gladiatorial bravado: “I told my coaches in the back, ‘You’re not going to like it, but I’m ready to die tonight.’” But at that moment Gaethje’s mind was clearly on his hands, and as Rogan went to shake one, Gaethje instead offered a fist bump.

Rogan was having none of it, saying “I don’t care” as he grabbed the hand.

“All right, corona’s way worse, blood won’t kill you,” Gaethje responded with a smile.

In the week leading up to U.F.C. 249, the promotion company’s officials spoke of a 25-page document that laid out extensive health and safety protocols that the organization would follow to ensure a safe event.

A review of the guidance in the document — the U.F.C.’s “Jacksonville Event Operations Plan,” a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times — indicates that U.F.C. officials and fighters routinely deviated from the outlined procedures in the days leading up to U.F.C. 249 and on the night of the pay-per-view event itself.

In a statement on Tuesday, the U.F.C. said the plan “provides a road map for a prudent, safe, and responsible working environment” as fighting resumes. It noted that the plan “is not the sum total of our protocols, which also includes Covid-19 antibody blood tests and antigen tests” and said the U.F.C. would be “updating it regularly with key learnings from each event going forward.”

The U.F.C. plans to hold two more events this week at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, with 11 bouts on each fight card. All three events have been approved by the Florida State Boxing Commission. Donald Muzzi, the chief ringside physician for the commission at U.F.C. 249, did not respond to a request for comment.

On Saturday at U.F.C. 249, Gaethje and Rogan shouldn’t have touched, let alone stood within six feet of each other. There were supposed to be “no face-to-face ‘in-Octagon’ post-fight or backstage interviews,” according to the plan; instead interviews were to be conducted “via headset with U.F.C. interviewers or commentators who will be stationed in a separate Arena zone.”

Wrapping up the televised event, the analyst Daniel Cormier explained how Rogan had received permission to do interviews that violated social distancing guidelines. “You threw a fit before the show,” Cormier said to Rogan. “This is insane. Everybody’s been tested, we’re all clean.”

A representative for Rogan did not respond to a request for comment.

That wasn’t the only part of the operation’s plan that went unheeded at times. The plan prohibits all “contact-based greetings” and said that all personnel “will be required to wear the face masks and gloves in connection with their job functions,” an edict that Dana White, the U.F.C. president, repeatedly ignored.

White believes that holding U.F.C. events can help show that it is safe to end stay-at-home orders and to resume holding public events. That belief, in part, appears to stem from his longtime friendship with President Trump — who, according to White, was looking at U.F.C. 249 as a blueprint.

Most fighters, including Souza, arrived at the U.F.C.’s host hotel in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday and immediately received Covid-19 viral and rapid antibody tests. The viral test used by the U.F.C. takes at least 24 hours to get results, and it was not discovered that Souza had the virus until Friday.

Some of the required personnel arrived less than 48 hours before the event began. One judge did not arrive until Friday night, according to two people familiar with the event who spoke on condition of anonymity, meaning that, at best, the result of his viral test could not have been received until the day of the fights.

Also, it is unclear whether everybody inside the arena Saturday night followed the same procedures. Arena employees, Florida State Boxing Commission staff members, antidoping administrators and news media members were present along with U.F.C. personnel. The event operations plan says that it does not take into account arena or commission employees, though it notes that some vendors will have to follow its guidelines.

Major American sports leagues, especially in team sports, are confronting very different circumstances from those encountered by the U.F.C. They have hundreds or thousands of athletes and even more staff members. They play home-and-away schedules in two dozen states, each with different local government mandates. They have 500-page collective bargaining agreements with athletes that restrict the terms that commissioners can unilaterally impose. (U.F.C. fighters are not unionized.)

The U.F.C. does not have such concerns. It has significant financial leverage over fighters, and public criticism of its health and safety plan could be muted because participants fear legal consequences.

UF.C. 249 participants — including fighters, their cornermen and reporters who attended in person — were asked to sign a participation agreement before the event. The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, said fighters could lose their “purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties” if they “suggest or communicate” the event was held “without appropriate health, safety or other precautions.”

“Some of the restrictive language in the U.F.C.’s agreement could have a chilling effect on journalists, possibly limiting their ability to fully and accurately report the facts,” the group said in its statement.

The U.F.C. said that the participation agreement had been updated for events going forward and that it was “not intended to stifle or otherwise silence anyone’s opinion as long as it is based on facts.”

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