Friends, athletes, objectivity and professionalism (SEO adds: MMA and sex)

You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.

That’s the semi-fictionalized Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the classic Almost Famous, the semi-autobiographical Cameron Crowe film about a young journalist getting advice from Bangs and going out on the road with a typical ’70s band.

Though I grew up wanting to write for Rolling Stone, I’m now glad MMA journalism is about as close as I’ll ever get. Sex, drugs and rock and roll? Well, there’s a bit of rock and roll. Aside from the occasional performance-enhancing drug scandal or marijuana aficionado, we don’t have any drugs.

Sex? That’s a little trickier. And being friends? Even trickier. The Karyn Bryant-Rampage Jackson interview raised a few questions along those lines.

As in any workplace, journalists are going to find people with whom you get along better than others. Some people are just plain difficult. Some people will have common interests with you.

And no one says all reporters are doing the same thing, or that all interviews have the same purpose. Bryant’s interview with Rampage fell somewhere in between Ariel Helwani’s multiple attempts to have a serious interview and Craig Ferguson’s late-night talk-show interview. Interviews between friends can be entertaining. Or in the case of all those Ahmad Rashad-Michael Jordan interviews back in the days of Da Bulls, flimsy and dull.

You can avoid being best buds with your sources, but you’re always going to have people you seek out for quotes. D.C. United’s Ben Olsen, now the coach, always drew a crowd in the locker room, no matter what he contributed to the game.

If your role in the media is to pass along an accurate report of what happened, you have to be prepared to say someone had a bad game or acted inappropriately. That might limit your friendships, but realistically, the more you hang around people, the more you’ll end up having friendly conversations. (Unless you’re a robot, of course, but robots tend to produce dull copy.) Personally, I’ve had a few athletes become good friends after their retirement. Especially when they end up working in the media.

If your role is to capture athletes’ personalities, getting friendly with athletes may be a good idea.

Now here’s the question that was kicked about a bit after the incident: What should we expect in the workplace of MMA journalism? Can the personality-driven journalists co-exist with those who are trying to be more analytical?

And we need a few journalists who are willing to look at the sport from a little more distance than the distance between Bryant and Rampage, who told Bryant “Jamaican me horny” and put his face close to Bryant’s chest right there in the room where postfight interviews were taking place. Fans are cringing when press conferences turn into pleas from dubiously credentialed reporters gushing over the UFC and asking for tickets for their friends. Fans want to know about the business deals — matchmaking, venues for the next fight cards, TV contracts — that will affect the sport.

Several of us traditional journalists objected to the Bryant-Rampage interview on the grounds that it was demeaning to the women who have strived very hard to be taken seriously in this workplace. Even for those of us who are men, it’s a little disconcerting, especially because this all took place after a fight rather than at some random interview location in which no other reporters were around.

The argument persisted for many days, in part because it’s complex. Yes, the MMA postfight press room is a workplace. But all workplaces are different. And you wouldn’t want to take all fraternization out of the workplace — how else would journalists get married?

The MMA workplace simply has a lax attitude toward letting sexuality intrude. The “Octagon Girls” who show the round number between rounds are media stars in their own right. At one postfight press conference, each seat had an issue of Playboy featuring former Octagon Girl Rachelle Leah, who also hosts some MMA video programming. Over the weekend in Vegas, I saw an experienced photographer carrying on a conversation while casually carrying an iPhone in her cleavage.

And the UFC certainly seems to think its fighters are some sort of sex gods. A common theme on The Ultimate Fighter is that fighters shouldn’t worry about their girlfriends back home because they’ll get plenty of (sex) when they’re in the UFC. That view of the world isn’t just immature, it’s wrong. The Gals Guide to MMA site has a “Pantydropper of the Week” feature that, more often than not, uses a healthy dose of wit to show why these guys are, in fact, not so hot. And the garishly tattooed and T-shirted MMA fans, many too insecure in their masculinity to crack a smile, are no prizes, either.

So yes, the sexual undercurrents are a little stronger in MMA than they are elsewhere. Is that harmful?

Here’s the tough part: Some journalists really are trying to do traditional journalism, and the environment for doing so is already a little hostile. Yesterday, Josh Barnett lashed out when Bloody Elbow expressed surprise that he didn’t yet have his license for a fight that’s only a couple of weeks away. Some women are still fighting for respect within MMA, as made painfully clear by the online vitriol that has been hurled at female journalists. (The UFC drew the line at Joe Rogan’s outburst.)

No, it’s absolutely not fair to pin all that on Bryant. She just wants to do an entertaining interview, and she’s an experienced, well-educated reporter. It’s not even fair to blame it on Rogan, though his part in this saga was miles over the line.

The problem, as it so often is, is the enablers. The people who tell people with a big name to ignore the “haters” and keep acting however they’re acting. They’re the ones who tell Josh Barnett he was right to say “Fuck you” to Bloody Elbow for raising a legitimate question. They’re the ones who take the side of the promoter in every credential dispute. They’re the ones who say rude, sexist nonsense to any woman who raises an issue with behavior in the MMA workplace, and they’re the ones who have Rogan’s back when he takes it to the next level.

From talking with fans at fights and Fan Expos, I think these enablers are a minority in the MMA fan base. They only seem to be in the majority on the UG, which is basically a safe haven for people with immature and insecure attitudes on sexuality.

MMA is growing beyond that group of people. To continue that growth, people in the sport are going to have to show some basic respect for others around them. The worst thing MMA could do would be perpetuate stereotypes that women’s roles in the sport are to be objects and that serious questions are not welcome.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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