Why Coverage Of Dana White Slapping His Wife Has Been So Disastrous
8:57 AM EST on January 6, 2023
Less than one week ago, TMZ published a video showing Dana White slapping his wife Anne at a club in Cabo San Lucas. White is the president of the UFC, arguably the single most prominent person affiliated with inarguably the largest MMA promotion in the world. He has given many very blustery quotes about how seriously the UFC takes domestic violence, quotes that now ring even more hollow than they did before when considering how consistently his organization has insulated its fighters from even the faintest consequences. This is a big story, one that should be straightforward for the enthusiast press and the mainstream sports media to cover. And yet, because of the media environment White and the UFC have ruthlessly cultivated for themselves over the past decade, coverage of this story has been mostly abominable.
The nadir was reached on Wednesday morning, in a two-minute segment cut by Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim on First Take. If you had not seen the clip of Dana White slapping his wife and merely watched the First Take duo talk around the facts of the story, you might conclude that White was in fact the victim here. Smith and Qerim are openly aggrieved with having to even discuss the incident at all, each sighing through rueful monologues about what a good man Dana White is and, despite Smith's admission that domestic violence is bad, what a bummer it is to have to be talking about this at all. "I love him," Smith starts, before Qerim cuts him off to exculpate White by saying, "When you're under the influence, not shining moments, so in that sense, it's a cautionary tale."
Both hosts stress the strength of their personal relationships with White and their love and respect for him, before Smith says, "He knew ahead of time because I reached out to him to let him know I would be talking about this this morning," and Qerim concludes, "I'm not a part of that whole cancel culture." It all takes place under a graphic reading "DANA WHITE APOLOGIZES." Enlightening!
Both Smith and Qerim are taking TMZ's cynical, pro-White framing and running with it. TMZ, which has a longstanding relationship with White and the UFC's parent company Endeavor, did everything they could to package the story in the most White-friendly way, and the First Take hosts dutifully hit all the same beats (that he is very sorry, that alcohol makes you act out of character, that both Anne and Dana hit each other). This is a new low for them, and positioning critical coverage of the figurehead of the UFC slapping his wife as a shameful overreach of cancel culture is both straightforwardly ridiculous and antithetical to Smith and Qerim's nominal role as journalists (it's a very nominal role). ESPN is uniquely positioned to cover this story poorly, as it is in the Dana White business more than TMZ or any other media entity on the planet. The Worldwide Leader is in the fourth year of a five-year, $1.5 billion broadcast deal with the UFC, a deal that has been central to the value proposition of ESPN+, as many UFC fight cards are broadcast exclusively through the streaming service and UFC pay-per-view events can only be accessed through ESPN+ in the United States.
There are inherent contradictions to ESPN aggressively and adversarially covering sports leagues it's in bed with; no sport's coverage strains these contradictions more than the UFC. Their MMA desk has covered the slap as a straight-up news story, though the network's most prominent coverage of it was the First Take hackjob, and one ESPNer tweeted that he and his colleagues were told not to "write anything incendiary on social media" before walking that revelation back. That ESPN has had no comment, and that Endeavor reportedly refers reporters to the TMZ story in place of an official comment, shows how little interest they have in taking this seriously. The only professional consequence it appears White will face is that the launch of his slap-fighting TBS show, called Dana White's Power Slap League, has had its debut pushed back one week.
The clearest way to understand the relationship between White and ESPN is in the case of Ariel Helwani, one of the biggest journalists in MMA media and one of the few who is still in the business after running afoul of White. Helwani signed with ESPN shortly before the UFC deal went through, and he told Dan Le Batard (who has been all over ESPN for its coverage of the White story) that White "raised hell" trying to get him out. Nobody succeeded—Helwani left in 2021 after getting a contract offer he didn't think was fair—but he said that once he joined, "for the next three years, it was one roadblock after the next. It was one issue after the next. [...] When I would be at events—let's say it's the weigh-ins—and there's a desk there and I'm doing something beforehand, but Dana White is coming as a guest in 30 minutes or something, I would have to be escorted out of the venue because, per his request, I couldn't be in his vicinity or his line of sight. So here I am, on the set of a company that I work for, and security, the nicest people in the world who are embarrassed that they had to do this, would tell me, 'I'm sorry, Ariel. We have to walk you out.' [...] I couldn't go backstage. I couldn't do a lot of other stuff."
Helwani has returned to MMA Fighting, one of the few big-time MMA outlets to cover the story of Dana White slapping his wife with the seriousness it deserves. At most other outlets, it has been brushed aside for news about Jake Paul or shrugged off. When it has been addressed by White-approved MMA insiders, as it most notably was in Kevin Iole's odd column for Yahoo Sports, the coverage has still been bizarrely hagiographic, with Iole spending most of his time praising Dana White for "all the good [he] has done in this world" and chalking White slapping his wife up to the stresses of White being a workaholic. The UFC under White will brook no dissent, as Helwani can tell you, as Bleacher Report's old MMA desk can tell you, or as anyone else who's criticized White and been targeted for it can tell you. The organization's openly adversarial relationship with the people who cover it in less than adulatory terms is at odds with ESPN's supposed journalistic mission, and it's in the tenor of the recent coverage of White that you can see how all the UFC's bullying badgering ends up paying off—with a bunch of people rushing to humiliate themselves in order to praise an awful guy they've been well-trained to never cross.