Even as the UFC downplays the health risks of holding bouts during a pandemic, it has been working to eliminate legal risk for itself.
In legal waivers presented to mixed martial artists by the sports entertainment company and viewed by Bloomberg News in advance of its multi-bout event on May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida, UFC fighters were required to acknowledge that hospital services in the area “may be unusually limited,” and that the UFC was making no guarantees “whatsoever” regarding local hospitals’ capacity, their ability to treat COVID-19, or whether going there would cause them to get exposed to the coronavirus.
The document also bans fighters from suggesting to anyone that the UFC events lack appropriate health and safety precautions and specifies that those who violate this prohibition could forfeit all their pay and bonuses for the bouts.
UFC President Dana White has pledged that the dominant mixed martial arts promotion would be “the first sport back.” The sport, whose initials stand for Ultimate Fighting Championship, involves close contact by necessity, with punching, kicking and submission holds.
With all the major U.S. sports leagues on hiatus and considering how best to return to action, the legal issues surrounding the players’ safety and the owners’ liability are likely to gain more prominence in the coming months. UFC is on the front lines of trying to figure out a viable way forward, with Saturday’s event produced for television with no fans present.
“UFC has requested that all attendees of the event, including athletes and staff, review and sign a form agreement that discloses the manner in which UFC intends to operate the event and the risks involved for those attending,” the UFC said in a statement. “It also confirms that all those coming to the event have chosen to do so voluntarily. We anticipate that agreements of this nature will become standard during these unprecedented times.”
On the eve of the event in Jacksonville, the UFC disclosed that Ronaldo Souza, who was scheduled to fight on Saturday night, had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with two of his cornermen. UFC pulled Souza from the lineup while moving ahead with the rest of the fights. In a statement, the UFC said that all three men were currently asymptomatic and would be self-isolating off of the premises.
The waiver agreement releases the UFC from any claims of negligence related to COVID-19 and bans the fighters signing it from cooperating with any investigations or claims brought over the event.
David Muraskin, a senior attorney at the legal advocacy group Public Justice, said sections of the agreement may be legally unenforceable but would still have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to report risks. “Given what we know about COVID, this is pretty shocking,” he said.
A lot was riding on the May 9 event for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, which had the exclusive rights to show the fights, and for UFC’s owner Endeavor, which last month announced up to a third of its staff would suffer pay cuts, layoffs or furloughs. In addition to the May 9 event, UFC is planning to hold additional Florida fights May 13 and 16, after canceling plans for several scheduled in March and April.
White repeatedly resisted such cancellations, saying on March 8 that he didn’t “give a s*** about the coronavirus.” On April 8, he tweeted a graphic that someone had made with the logo of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “ranking places in terms of safety,” which listed the next UFC fight as safer than either “your room” or “space.” That was around the time White was floating plans to stage fights on a private island or on Native American land exempt from California’s shelter-in-place order.
UFC has said it’s committed to keeping its fighters and workers safe. “We put together an approximately 25-page comprehensive health and safety operations manual that we submitted to the local regulators and the state boxing commission,” the UFC’s chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein told Bloomberg News in a recent interview.
UFC’s plan before the fight, which went ahead as scheduled, was to test everyone—fighters, trainers, referees, staff, production crew—for the virus and antibodies upon their arrival in Florida. Those people were then to be subject to regular temperature checks and medical exams in the lead up to the fight. On the night of the event, fewer than 150 people were expected to be in the arena, about half the typical number used to stage such a production. The UFC plans to administer at least 1,200 tests over the span of the three Jacksonville events. No fans will be in attendance.
Jason Cruz, a Seattle-based attorney who runs MMAPayout, a news site about “the business of combat sports,” said the waiver agreement shows that the UFC is aware of the risk the coronavirus poses for its fighters while accepting no liability for their potential exposure to the hazard. Some of the conditions of the agreement, he said, such as a portion requiring participants to certify that no one they expect to have contact with in the four weeks after the event has ”underlying medical conditions” increasing their COVID-19 risk, might be particularly challenging for the fighters to abide by.
“The athletes aren’t doctors,” he said. “They can’t determine whether their sparring partner has an underlying asthmatic condition.”
UFC has been dogged for years by criticism of its treatment of fighters, who it classifies as independent contractors and pays a much lower share of its revenue than major league sports like baseball, football and basketball. A federal district court judge in Nevada is slated to rule on whether to certify a class of some 1,200 fighters in a $5 billion antitrust lawsuit alleging the company has exploited monopoly power to drive down fighters’ pay, which can be as little as $13,500 a bout before expenses. “This case runs contrary to accepted antitrust principles and seeks a ruling that would undermine competition, innovation, and new businesses,” the UFC said in a filing in 2018.