Joe Rogan, Bad Words, and a Fractured Media Culture

This story is in response to Brad Oremland's Fire Joe Rogan piece.

On Monday, fellow SC writer Brad Oremland wrote a column about how UFC commentator Joe Rogan should be fired for using language considered to be offensive by a large percentage of Americans.

To sum it up, Brad argues Rogan used hate speech, and in order to take the next step toward becoming a mainstream American sporting organization, the UFC must fire Rogan as a sign of their disapproval of the cultural attitudes reflected by his language.

"If the UFC wants to be taken seriously and reach its full potential," Brad wrote, "it needs to start acting like the grown-ups."

I won't use the words Rogan said, or that Oremland discussed at length in his column, because I don't need them for the purpose of this article. In fact, this article isn't even really about Rogan's language. He said what he said. Some like it. Some don't. And most probably didn't notice or didn't care. At any rate, that subject has been discussed and there's not much need to rehash it here.

What I find far more interesting in this debate is the place the UFC holds in the American sporting landscape, and whether the growth of mixed martial arts, and UFC as its main competitive organization, necessitates a change in how the insiders of the sport operate.

In other words, does the growth of MMA mean the UFC has to "grow up," as Brad puts it?

Diehard MMA fans will be able to tell you a whole lot more about the history of MMA and the rise of the UFC than I will, so this is no history lesson. But to sum it up, MMA in America started off in the mid-1990s as a way of seeing which single-discipline fighters would win a fight. Could a kick-boxer beat a karate master? Could a boxer beat a wrestler? Put them in a cage and find out.

There weren't a whole lot of rules (or weight classes) in the beginning, but that changed as promotions wanted to put on shows across the country and needed approval from state licensing boards. Then in 2001, the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC and installed marketing genius Dana White as the organization's front man. The Ultimate Fighter landed on Spike, Tap Out gear started showing up at JC Penny, and presto chango, an empire was born.

At its core, though, nothing has changed about MMA since those early days of Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. It's a gladiator sport. Two men (or women now) enter a cage/ring/octagon/some other form of enclosed area, then try to destroy each other physically. The fighters have come a million miles from their forefathers in terms of being well rounded and well trained, but the goal remains the same: destroy your opponent before he destroys you.

MMA is a sport of violence. Make no mistake about it. That's what draws the fans. We want to see somebody get hurt, or pull off a cool submission that would result in injury if the other guy wasn't forced to give up. That's why you hear fans boo when a fighter whose primary skill is wrestling takes a guy down but just holds his position instead of trying to put his elbows through the other guy's face. The National Football League may be doing everything in their power to prevent concussions, but in the UFC, knockout of the night gets you a nice fat bonus check.

Most of America doesn't watch MMA, and that's okay. We are no longer in an age where something has to appeal to the common denominator in order to be worth air time. This is the age of a fractured media, where niche programming is king. You've got FOX News for the right-wing conservatives. You've got MSNBC for the left-wing liberals. You've got the HGTV, Comedy Central, Court TV, and five different ESPNs. Everybody gets what they want, and everybody else can shove off.

The good part of the fractured media age is that minority interests that used to be ignored now have a place of their own. The moneyed powers of corporate media may still run the big show, but modern technology has provided the world access to all the side shows it can handle. If you want it, it's out there. And if it isn't, go make it. In the history of the world, there have never been as many avenues for expression as there are now.

The down side to this incredible freedom of choice is that because the niche market gets to operate in its own bubble, members often lose connection of the fact they operate as part of a larger culture. We focus in so much on ourselves and people like us that we lose touch of the other side, the them to our us. And in our own echo chamber, we can pretty much talk ourselves into anything.

And that's what brings us back to Joe Rogan and the question of what becomes of a counter-culture niche market when that niche market starts to get so big the mainstream takes an interest? Can it continue to exist in its original form, playing by its own niche rules, or does it have to adapt to mainstream cultural standards?

To bring it back to the UFC, should they stop having sexy ring girls because they depict females as sex objects and might give young men and women a distorted sense of femininity?

Should fighters no longer be able to throw elbows because they cause some of the most gruesome cuts you'll ever see, and that can't possibly be good for young viewers?

Should Joe Rogan pretend he's Bob Costas so nobody gets offended?

Many would say yes. Perhaps Brad would, as well. But that assumes that the UFC and the MMA culture want to be accepted as a brother to the more-established American sporting mainstays. And I just don't think that's the case.

MMA is not mainstream America. It is a hyper-macho, violent sport that takes pride in its counter-culture roots. It is the very definition of niche — a very profitable one thanks to White's exceptional vision and marketing prowess, but a niche nonetheless. And we shouldn't confuse the rise in visibility as a sign it's time to "grow up" or some other euphemism for conformity.

In a way, Rogan is the embodiment of the UFC's place in the larger American culture. Anybody who has followed Rogan's career is not surprised at the least that he would use language some find offensive. That's what he does. He sees the modern moral code from the outside and finds humor in pointing out its inconsistency and hypocrisy. He's a true counter-culturalist, except instead of being a pot-smoking hippie, he's a pot-smoking comedian and fight announcer. And his fans love him for it (as Brad found out).

For better or worse, our culture has fractured beyond repair. The mainstream doesn't get to draft a niche market and make it its own any more. The decentralization of media power has provided the kings of niche culture the power of self determination, and it's up to them to decide how much of their values they're willing to trade in for mainstream's money.

And that's really all this is about — money. White and the UFC have found a way to make it hand over fist their way. They don't need to adapt. They don't need anybody's moral approval. They have their business model, and it relies on violence, sexy ring girls, and Joe Rogan being Joe Rogan.

So if you want to watch a UFC pay-per-view, go ahead. But you would be wise to check your moral expectations at the door. It's a different kind of place, with its own set of rules. And conforming to mainstream culture isn't on the agenda.

Leave a Comment

Save Info?

Featured Site