Tag Archives: Chael Sonnen

Sports, Steroids, and Grace

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Lots of sad news in the world of sports (and sports entertainment) lately.  One of my favorite fighters, Chael Sonnen, may be getting more than the proverbial slap on the wrist from the California State Athletic Commission.  It’s been a rapid ascent and and even more rapid decline for the former No. 1 Contender for Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva’s middleweight title.  After beating up Silva for all but 2 minutes of their five-round affair, Sonnen was submitted in the closing minutes.

Since then, things have just gotten worse.  The Cliff’s Notes version: he popped positive for banned substances after tests showed abnormal testosterone levels.  He claimed he had a doctor’s note, and that he had told other officials.  Some of these claims were disputed.  In the meantime, he was convicted in a real estate fraud case and lost his real estate license (which also forced him to stop his bid for Congress).

Initially, the CSAC was prepared to lift his suspension, but this week they took a mulligan at a special hearing and changed their minds.  Disagreements over the honesty of Sonnen’s statements – if anything, he is a talker – and other concerns caused them to vote 4-1 to suspend his license indefinitely.  The problem: not only does this shelve Sonnen in California until 2012, but because most athletic commissions honor such decisions across state lines, it is likely he could only get fights in states without such regulatory bodies.  Even with that, it is doubtful that the UFC, which is continually seeking to improve its image, would back a fighter against the wishes of a state commission.

In light of the wrist-slapping that goes on in virtually all other professional sports, Sonnen’s penalty seems unnecessarily harsh.  It seems like a personal vendetta more than a pragmatic penalty. “This will teach those fighters,” I hear them sneering in the boardroom, “to make public comments about officials and judges.”  Methinks Chael is being made and example of.

We give grace to our athletes all the time.  Yes, Sonnen broke the law, but he also owned up to it and faced the music.  He’s been punished.  Performance-enhancing drugs?  It’s an open secret that many, if not most, professional sports are rife with them.  Does it make it right? No.  But it should temper our righteous indignation when someone tests positive.  In Matthew 18 we find the following exchange:

 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Seventy-seven?  Surely we can find room for 2, or 3.  Jeff Sherwood over at Sherdog sums it up nicely:

We have to be honest with ourselves: PEDs exist in professional sports. Somewhere in the world, a curling sweeper is probably using steroids. It’s against the law, but so many athletes do it just to be able to compete in today’s sports. Pro athletes are pushed year after year to tackle harder, hit longer home runs, jump higher and knock more people out. Then, when they’re caught doing things that will help them perform to the standards set, everyone turns against them.

Most MMA fighters have a hard enough time buying food to feed their bodies properly with the money they make; being forced to sit out for a year is a huge blow. Four games to an NFL player is the equivalent of a parking ticket.

Look, I get it: these players have broken the rules. But commissioners, judges and referees in MMA — not to mention the millions working in or around the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL — are able to feed their families because of what these professional athletes do. Let’s give them a little bit of love.

Update:  Apparently the CSAC made a mistake, and Sonnen is eligible to apply in CA and everywhere June 29 for licensure.  Time will tell, of course.  Perhaps if he doesn’t talk too much about it between now and then, the commissions will cease to unduly punish him.  The timing seems suspect to me; there has been a good deal of disappointment over the handling of this case.  Oh well.  Hope he gets back in the cage this year, especially if it is against Michael Bisping.

What Sports Would Jesus Watch?

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In one of my seminary classes dealing with gender issues and Christian faith, we read Chuck Palahniuk’s remarkable Fight Club.  Interestingly, this was the one male-oriented book we read for the class (like most gender classes, “gender” really means “women”).  I recall the women in the class, including the professor, being horrified at the popularity of the story and the movie.  Many questioned how people could be attracted to such naked violence.  There was poo-pooing all around until I brought up the fact that many people in the room like violence in a form that most of us consider innoccuos: sports.  The point was valid; even ardent pacifists that I know enjoy inherently violent sports like hockey, football, and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Thanks to a post over at Sherdog, I found the following quote in a piece by Adam Groza at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California (which I’d never heard of until reading this post):

UFC and MMA amounts to violence porn, a term which has been applied to movies with wanton violence such as “SAW,” where violence is not part of the plot, it is the attraction. Violence for violence’s sake, as opposed to instrumental or redeeming violence, desensitizes the viewer to the graphic horror of watching two people pummel each other for the sake of entertainment. UFC and MMA offer exactly the kind of violence condemned in Psalm 11:5. Ezekiel 7:23 decries, “the city is full of violence.” Why are Christians supporting violence in the city?

I think the comparison of SAW is ignorant and egregious.  I can’t stand the SAW franchise, but that is a matter of taste more than morality.  Futhermore, what Groza calls “violence for violence’s sake” I would simply call honest violence.  Much of the attraction of our favorite sports stems from the violent aspects: fights in hockey and wrecks in NASCAR come to mind.  UFC fighter (and compelling wordsmith) Chael Sonnen makes this point about football:

The UFC is the only thing that has violence that isn’t fraudulent. Football…they put up these end zones, but you take the end zones out people will still come. You take the tackling out, and it’s gonna be a ghost town in those stadiums. UFC will tell you what you’re going to get – straight ahead – and you can buy a ticket if you like the ride.

Groza goes on to say that the UFC exploits women because of the ring girls.  I suppose he’s never seen cheerleaders at any other sporting events? Another glaring omission is any mention of boxing.  Anything true about the violence of MMA – if you know the sport – is even more true of “the sweet science.”  And yet, for numerous reasons, people who are horrified by MMA still see boxing as a gentleman’s game.  Such views only showcase a lack of exposure to the emerging sport.

I think Groza has a point when he shares some of the more disturbing examples of churches using MMA to market evangelize.  While some churches host sporting events like Super Bowls and some will have basketball leagues and even karate classes, as a pastor I would not be comfortable making a UFC pay-per-view a churchwide event.  However, I think there are many things an individual Christian can do that a church ought not sponsor (like watch reality TV, for instance).

This is another example of a severe bias against MMA in the larger culture, and more evidence that the sport has yet to arrive.  From an ecclesial perspective, it is true that Christians should always hold a critical eye to their society; that much in Groza’s piece is useful.  But if MMA is untouchable because of its violence, so are many other of America’s favorite pastimes.  In other words, if one argues that MMA is anathema for the church, then we can only say that a larger blindspot has been uncovered.