Tuesday, November 6, 2012
At the intersection of politics and MMA
By Josh Gross
Comments made about Barack Obama led to Secret Service agents at Jacob Volkmann's front door.
Jacob Volkmann takes up space on what must be a very short list. After all, how many people can claim President Barack Obama smashed his head into a wall?
Following politically charged on-camera comments early last year in the wake of a win at UFC 125 -- the lightweight mixed martial artist said he wanted to fight the president because "someone's got to knock some sense into that idiot" -- enterprising editors at "The Tonight Show" worked their magic.
As the 32-year-old resident of White Bear Lake, Minn., was being interviewed, the president digitally stepped in behind him and, smiling wry, remorselessly bounced the fighter’s head off a glass-framed photo.
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"I couldn't believe they made it look so real," Volkmann said.
The spot not only earned big laughs from Jay Leno's audience, it elevated the opinion of a cage fighting chiropractor from Minnesota onto the national stage.
Life turned considerably less amusing as threats were hurled at Volkmann and his family. Zealots had the gall to call his home. Once in a while he argued, hoping an actual policy discussion would break out. Rarely did it result in something so satisfying.
"I didn't think it would be that bad," he said. "Some of those people are ridiculous in what they're saying. They don't even know what I'm talking about and they'll call me an idiot or want to kill me and my family just because I don't like Obama. I don't understand why."
Police and Secret Service knocked on his door within days of the comments to gauge how serious he was. And White Bear Lake High School suspended him from wrestling coaching duties, granted it was a week with pay.
The reaction illustrates perfectly why athletes shy away from publicly discussing their politics. If a poorly worded statement from an unranked UFC veteran can spark that kind of reaction, imagine the possibilities.
Despite the proven potential for blowback, advocacy for candidates, ballot measures, political ideologies and even conspiracy theories aren't shunned or in short supply in MMA circles.
"It's a sport that has built itself on that edgy, non-politically correct attitude," said John Fuller, operator of Full Athlete Marketing, a sports marketing and publicity firm that works with pros in various sports, including UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit. "And that's what you expect from fighters."
There could be several explanations, said Edward Sidlow, a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University who studied the intersection of politics and sport. Athletes signed to major sports leagues are often contractually prohibited from speaking politically, or, at least, mightily dissuaded from doing so by agents and public relations consultants wary of getting off-message.
Athletes, Sidlow said, "are cautioned by their agents that it's a Pandora's box they might be opening if they do become politically active in a public way. ... Professional sports has become such a business, and it's bad business to mix politics into your work if you're in the entertainment industry."
With revenue tied to jersey sales, endorsements and merchandising, alienating fans is the last thing pro baseball, football or basketball players want to do. As Michael Jordan famously noted, Republicans buy sneakers, too. However Josh Thomson, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion, also an outspoken critic of President Obama, disagrees with this way of thinking.
"Honestly, I kind of criticize other professional athletes that don't really speak up on issues like this," Thomson said. "They're just doing what they can to keep their fans and, yeah, maybe you can do that and build a better reputation, but it's kind of disturbing. You don't really have your voice. But to me certain things are very important."
If Thomson had more on the line financially, perhaps his perspective would change. For now, hammering away at the president on Twitter, or walking to the cage on Showtime wearing an anti-Obama shirt he designed hasn't cost him.
In fact, Thomson estimated he received nearly 4,000 tweets the night he wore the shirt, and soon was able to make a few bucks selling it online. A bit of a boon since most mixed martial artists don't see much in the way of ancillary rights generated money, let alone something so lucrative as revenue sharing.
"I think we're the working class of professional athletes," said Thomson, a lifelong conservative. "We're not making millions to stand in the outfield and try and catch a ball, or dribble a ball up and down a court. I'm not saying that other athletes don't work hard, but we're the blue collar of professional athletes. We do grimy work for our money. It's not like we make millions. Most of us make decent money, just not millions, so it's different for us."
The recently retired Kenny Florian has taken a public political stance in California regarding food policy.
Said recently retired Kenny Florian: "I think we're lucky that whatever fan base we do have we can communicate with them and share our views and hope to do whatever we can to educate them on different things we're passionate about, whatever it is. That's our right as Americans."
Florian has taken to Twitter to share his thoughts regarding U.S. food policy with more than 143,000 followers. Believing it would propel the rest of the country to follow along, he wants a California ballot proposition to pass that would require labeling genetically modified food products in the state.
"At the very least I'm getting some information out there," Florian said. "And getting some people to go and do research, or find out even what GMO is, or what Prop 37 is -- I guess I did my job."
Politics, the saying goes, is inherently local.
Florian's interest in food policy started five years ago, when he read up on sports science, nutrition, eating and training well. It hit home when his older brother was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year. And after watching a televised advertisement in opposition of Prop 37, Florian, who lives in California but isn't registered to vote there, acted on an urge to engage.
"It's affected my life and I see the importance of it," Florian said. "I think it's important for people to know about food and how to eat healthy and what to eat. That's probably one of the most common questions I got when I first started on Twitter. It's something my brother and I and a few people in my family are very passionate about."
Volkmann's beef is similarly personal.
Entangled in the housing crisis in 2009, he had serious concerns about keeping his home. In the end he decided to short sell. Unable to find relief through the Making Home Affordable Program, Volkmann holds the president responsible. Without that experience, there's no statement about wanting to fight Obama, no "Tonight Show" skit, no visit from the Secret Service. All of which would have been fine with him.
Volkmann wants people to know his distaste for politicians is nonpartisan. Republican congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is running for re-election in his district and he promised not to vote for her, either.
"They say it's bad for your PR," Volkmann said. "Most fans want you talking just about fighting and staying out of politics, because that's one place where fans escape from politics for a while. They say it's not a good choice, which is fine. I've already opened Pandora's box. I'm going to have to keep going with it, right?"