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Fighting VisibilitySports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC$

Jennifer McClearen

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780252043734

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252043734.001.0001

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The Fight for Labor Equity

The Fight for Labor Equity

(p.135) Chapter 5 The Fight for Labor Equity
Fighting Visibility

Jennifer McClearen

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 5 delves into the unionization efforts by former UFC fighter Leslie Smith and the fighters’ association she cofounded, Project Spearhead. Smith has legally challenged the UFC’s classification of fighters as underpaid independent contractors--a classification that makes these athletes a relatively inexpensive and expendable investment for the UFC. The chapter considers potential solutions for gendered labor inequity in sports media by centering political visibility as a viable avenue for illuminating labor inequalities and improving workers’ rights within the UFC. While a union might benefit all fighters, those who stand to gain the most from a fighters’ union are White women and women of color because historically the most disenfranchised identities recuperate the most rights when unions collectively advocate for the equal treatment of all workers.

Keywords:   UFC, Project Spearhead, Unions, Visibility, Labor, independent contractors, workers

MMA fighters from all over the world gathered for a weekend at the promotion’s headquarters in Las Vegas in summer 2017 for the first UFC athlete retreat. The festivities included celebrity speakers, seminars, informational sessions with UFC sponsors, and a concert by rapper and UFC fan Snoop Dogg. The spectacle heralded a few developments in the organization, namely the opening of a new world headquarters and the UFC Performance Institute, a branch of the UFC dedicated to studying and improving the physical skills and recovery for fighters. The retreat also offered the first chance for the new owner, Endeavor, to engage a large group of the promotion’s athletes and set the tone for the next chapter in UFC ownership. In one session, former NBA star Kobe Bryant spoke about his experience as a professional athlete and opened the floor for questions from the fighters gathered around the room. UFC fighter Leslie Smith walked up to the microphone, unsure how Bryant would receive the loaded question she was about to pose:

How essential to your personal negotiations and the success of basketball in the world do you believe a players’ association has been? We’re on the verge of forming a union here … [but] … some of us are on the fence about how much do we pay in or [are] worried about rocking the boat. How significant to you and your career, and basketball in the world, do you feel like the unity of the players represented by the association has been?

(Quoted in Bohn 2017)

(p.136) As Smith formulated her words, there was a rising sea of cheers as many of the other three hundred athletes at the retreat began to realize that she was breaching a taboo topic between fighters and the UFC. For fighters, the issue of an association or union to grant them more access to UFC decision-making and revenue is one that often takes place behind closed doors rather than in the public eye. But in this moment, Smith brought the fight to the UFC elites making her politics extremely visible for those in the room and those watching later on social media. Bryant responded affirmatively to Smith’s question:

[A union is] extremely important … we [NBA players] understand completely that a rising tide raises all boats. When you guys have this unity and you guys are operating together on the same page. … it does nothing but simply fortify the sport, make the sport better. Not just for present, but for future generations that are coming. So it’s extremely important.

(Quoted in Bohn 2017)

Bryant asserted that players unions were essential to the ability of NBA players to have agency in their careers. He repeated the adage “a rising tide raises all boats” to support the concept of unionization within the UFC ranks. Smith walked away from the microphone beaming victoriously to a chorus of cheering voices. Less than a year later, the UFC chose not to renew Smith’s contract despite her winning record, impressive stats, and dynamic fighting style. She directly correlates her unionization efforts to her dismissal from the UFC. The timing and circumstances of her abrupt departure from the promotion raises concerns about the level of impunity the UFC has in managing fighters.

The Fight for Labor Equity

Leslie Smith. YouTube, MMA Junkie, Leslie Smith still upset at last fight, ready to shine at UFC Fight Night 85.

(p.137) The moment between Smith, Bryant, and the other fighters at the retreat prompts us to consider the athletes’ precarious relationship with the UFC as they expose structural inequalities in the promotion for the world to see. To fighters like Smith and Cat Zingano, the UFC retreat made the stark contrast between organizational revenue and fighters’ lives more apparent. Zingano also attended the retreat and remembers that the content of the seminars addressed issues that were incongruent with more pressing concerns for the group of athletes in attendance, which largely consisted of fighters who were paid in the low to mid-tier range rather than the promotion’s biggest stars (Mindenhall 2017). Zingano believed that the UFC’s chief aim for the retreat was to inform the athletes about all the new developments in the promotion while spending millions of dollars on an event with carpets and wall fixtures that “will only be used once.” She continued: “how much money went into bringing Snoop in and Michael Strahan in, and Kobe Bryant—what did these guys get paid to come do this when we’re sitting here broke, or struggling?” (quoted in Mindenhall 2017). Zingano further noted that the UFC has cultivated sponsor relationships that augments the wealth of the UFC, but not the fighters:

That was more insulting than anything, and I don’t know if they considered that when they were creating the content when they were like look, we get this many viewers, we sell this many fights to this many homes a year, blah blah blah, and all of us are still sitting there knowing exactly what we get f*cking paid.

(Quoted in Mindenhall 2017)

Zingano’s experience at the athlete retreat marks the tenor of the room where Smith stood to raise the issue of a fighters’ union. The palpable disconnect between the content of the corporate event and the actual experience of the fighters proved Smith’s question both poignant and timely.

This chapter centers Leslie Smith’s fight for MMA fighters’ rights through the labor organization she cofounded: Project Spearhead. We have seen that discourses of women’s empowerment and the American dream promise possibility for the droves of female fighters attempting to join the most prestigious MMA promotion in the world. Branded difference paints an attractive image of successful female fighters while disregarding the fighter labor at the center of the UFC’s profitability. In addition, visibility is a key avenue to gaining fans, booking flights, and garnering other types of exposure for a fighter’s career (chapter 4); yet, visibility is also a double-edged sword. Branded difference operates within economies of visibility that assume that the mere presence of female fighters has achieved some form of justice; yet, the promotion also (p.138)

The Fight for Labor Equity

Cat Zingano.

Photo by Amy Kaplan.

attempts to thwart political visibility that might draw attention to injustice. To make noise, to clamor for fairness, to stand alone in a room of UFC fighters and dare to say the word “union” is precarious for fighters. I assert that political visibility is a key avenue for illuminating labor inequalities for workers and holds promise for improving workers’ rights within the UFC, and for women in the sport in particular. This chapter takes seriously the imperative within the cultural studies scholarly tradition to highlight how power operates in media culture, but also to pragmatically consider how to combat exploitative practices. As the scholar Henry Giroux (2000) reminds us, “cultural studies is more than simply an academic discourse; it offers a critical vocabulary for shaping public life as a form of practical politics” (13). The shift to “practical politics” extends the book’s ideological critique by examining the legality and ethics of the UFC’s use of a contract labor force. I consider the precarity facing Smith and other fighters who have brought the union fight into the light and show how unionization might benefit fighters.

This chapter’s consideration of what political visibility can offer UFC athletes has perhaps no greater inspiration than the USWNT’s quest for equal pay. A few months prior to the start of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, twenty-eight USWNT players announced a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer citing stark wage disparities between the highly successful women’s team and the (p.139) often floundering men’s team.1 Announcement of the lawsuit was well-timed for maximum visibility: on International Women’s Day, three months before the world would be glued to the pitch for several weeks to watch the sporting drama unfold during the sport’s most visible event. Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke (2019) points out that the timing of the team’s actions was also unusual: “This isn’t what champion athletes normally do—launch a public fight with their boss at the most critical stage of their athletic preparation, when their focus is on shutting out distractions, rather than actively creating them.” Instead, the USWNT timed their actions meticulously to coincide with when their visibility was reaching fever pitch. Much of the media coverage of the World Cup indeed focused on the team’s fight for equal pay. Fans at USWNT games during the World Cup even chanted “equal pay” in response to the team’s fight with U.S. Soccer. As Professor Nicole LaVoi told ESPN, “Traditionally, athlete activists have been shut down, fired, discriminated against, all of that. … What’s happening [with the USWNT], though, is working. They’re drawing attention to the issue. They’re using their collective power” (Borden 2019). Likewise, leveraging political visibility through collective action is one such measure that Leslie Smith firmly believes could benefit fighters as well.

Much of my analysis of Smith’s union fight and the obstacles to unionization centers on issues that impact both female and male fighters, even though the heart of Fighting Visibility remains fixed on female athletes. The fight for labor rights is an uphill battle that can best be won by as many fighters as possible rallying in support of one another to build strength in numbers. That said, White women, women of color, and/or women who fail to perform the pretty and powerful imperative stand to gain the most from these efforts because unions historically have raised wages and improved working conditions for everyone, but especially for women and/or people of color. Those workers who are most disenfranchised often experience the greatest gain from those organizing efforts when unions and associations collectively advocate for workers’ rights to be equally applied to everyone. The latter part of the chapter considers how Project Spearhead’s key platforms would benefit all fighters with added equity for female fighters.

The Peacemaker’s Union Fight

Leslie “the Peacemaker” Smith began training MMA in 2008 and fought her first amateur fight a month after beginning the sport, which is a telling example of her fearlessness in the ring and outside it. One of UFC fans’ most memorable moments of Smith occurred in a fight against Jessica Eye at UFC 180 (November (p.140) 15, 2014) in Mexico City, when a strike from the other fighter caused a small hematoma, or “cauliflower ear,” to burst and separate part of Smith’s ear. The doctors examined Smith to determine if she could continue, and she yelled in Spanish to the crowd “It doesn’t hurt! I can continue!” The doctors didn’t share her optimism and stopped the fight. Witnessing her aggressive fighting style and durability in the ring, some might think her nickname simply refers to the Colt .45 revolver, “the peacemaker”; but Smith strongly identifies with nonviolence and sees MMA fighting as a “controlled burn” that allows fighters to express themselves in a contained environment. She says, “I grew very fond of the nickname … because I feel like that it is something I am trying to use, the soapbox I get for fighting, to talk about other aspects of fighting, peace and life” (quoted in Reid 2017). Smith views the MMA stage as a platform to bring visibility to the fight for social justice in the sport. Her efforts to organize fighters into a viable union and collective voice are a shining example of “The Peacemaker” in action. Politically, she exposes the ways the UFC misclassifies fighters as contracted employees and prevents its athletes from taking collective action. Smith’s experience attempting to unionize MMA fighters illuminates how precarious certain forms of visibility can be for independent contractors in the UFC.

Smith has advocated for greater fighter agency in the UFC through collective organizing since 2016. She has joined other MMA athletes to form fighters’ associations that demand more rights and opportunities. She was an active member in the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA), a group formed to lobby for the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to be applied to MMA and to prevent the UFC from having a monopoly on the sport.2 The U.S. Congress passed the act in 2000 in order to curb corruption and fighter extortion in boxing. Some of the provisions of the Ali Act included limiting the length of a contract to twelve months and providing consequences for contracts that heavily favored promoters over boxers. The MMAFA argued that MMA fighters faced similar issues in their sport and that the application of the Ali Act to MMA would benefit the sport. The association also sought to curb the UFC’s ability to stifle other MMA promotions, arguing that healthy competition among various MMA entities would drive promotions to elevate overall fighter salaries and benefits in order to recruit the best talent. Smith was active in the MMAFA, but the organization disagreed with her assertion that unionization was a viable path for increasing the rights of MMA fighters. Instead, it favored methods that would reduce the UFC’s monopoly on the sport.

In February 2018, Smith formed a new effort to gain support around a fighters’ union when she, fellow fighter Kajan Johnson, and attorney Lucas (p.141) Middlebrook created Project Spearhead. The key aims of the new association included collecting authorization cards (a signed document supporting the formation of a union) in order to form a legitimate fighter union while also operating “as an Association of fighters and secur[ing] benefits for its members such as healthcare, access to legal review of contracts and access to reputable financial planners. The ultimate goal is for all fighters, across every promotion, to speak with a unified and collective voice” (“Project Spearhead Home” n.d.). Smith and Middlebrook were clear in their promotion of Project Spearhead that authorization cards would remain confidential in perpetuity as a measure to encourage fighters to sign without fear of retaliation from the UFC.

Unfortunately for Smith and Project Spearhead, her eventual dismissal from the UFC did nothing to assuage fighters’ concerns that retaliation for unionizing was a possibility. As Smith began advocating on various MMA news sites and social media for fighters to sign authorization cards via the Project Spearhead website, she simultaneously promoted her next fight scheduled against Aspen Ladd in April 2018. UFC contracts for Smith and Ladd required both women to weigh in below the 135.5-pound limit for the bantamweight division, but Ladd failed to make weight, which nullified the contract between the UFC and the two women. In many states that sanction MMA events, Smith wouldn’t have been entitled to any pay for the canceled fight. UFC contracts typically exclude provisions for fighters who fulfill their obligations but whose opponent must cancel for any reason. This means a fighter could spend months preparing for a bout, attend all the prefight week fanfare, and make weight only to lose their chance for a payday at the last minute—an experience that UFC fighter Cortney Casey describes in excruciating detail (see chapter 3). Because the fight was taking place under the New Jersey Athletic Commission rules, Smith was still entitled to the fight purse she was promised if she had competed. Most states don’t have a similar guaranteed payment provision in such cases, and the decision to pay a fighter remains at the discretion of the UFC.

The UFC paid Smith for the fight due to state regulations and determined that the promotion and the athlete had fulfilled the three-fight contract both entities had signed. The UFC then announced that it would not renew her contract, which was a curious move considering Smith’s winning record in the UFC and her desire to remain in the promotion. For example, the UFC ranked her ninth in the world in her weight class, had recently awarded her a “Fight of the Night” bonus for an impressive performance, and celebrated her as producing several memorable fights during her four-year tenure in the promotion. Smith maintains that the UFC retaliated against her because of her visible unionization efforts. She then took legal action to prove these claims. Even if, for the sake of (p.142) argument, the UFC didn’t renew Smith’s contract for other reasons, her case illuminates how precarious fighters are in the promotion. Smith did her job, did it well, and was still ousted from the UFC rather quickly. This is precisely the type of working conditions that she and others are trying to bring to light.

Smith and her attorney, Lucas Middlebrook, determined that the UFC’s decision not to re-sign her provided a case to bring before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). What transpired between Smith, the NLRB, and the UFC demonstrates the ways that the UFC leverages its clout to prevent certain labor issues from seeing the light of day. The NLRB is an independent government organization established in 1935 to provide legal protections for workers and their efforts to unionize, to collectively bargain, and to protect themselves from unfair labor practices. Smith’s NLRB claim argued that the UFC retaliated against her because she was actively unionizing. Middlebrook presented Smith’s case to Region 4 of the NLRB, which is based in Philadelphia, in May 2018. After nearly two months of deliberation, Region 4 determined that Smith’s case had merit enough to file complaints against the UFC, which is the first step after a charge has been filed. In most cases, once a claim has been determined to have merit, the parties involved would either settle out of court or go before a judge with their dispute; however, Smith’s case did not advance to this stage of the process.

A few hours after Region 4 determined merit, Middlebrook received a call from NLRB headquarters in Washington, D.C., indicating that they would block Region 4’s determination in order to consider the complaints before moving forward, which halted the progress given Smith’s case only a few hours earlier. The attorney noted that occasionally regions would reroute difficult cases to the NLRB’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., but usually with some indication in advance that the transfer would occur. Middlebrook says, “I had never experienced a situation where you were told that the region had ruled in your favor, only to hear hours later that D.C. called and said, ‘no we’re going to look at this first.’ [It was] so suspicious. Not even enough time had elapsed for Region 4 to issue their determination in writing.” Later that September the NLRB reversed its determination of merit, stating that the UFC terminated Smith’s contract because of failed negotiations rather than as retaliation for unionizing. The NLRB reported that the UFC claimed that Smith demanded greater pay and that the two parties failed to reach an agreement as a result of this and other contract disputes, which resulted in their dismissal of the fighter’s claim. Smith disputed this characterization of the events that took place, but to date the NLRB has not granted her an appeal of its dismissal of her claims.

Smith and Middlebrook believe that the UFC leveraged its political ties to block their efforts to voice her grievances before the board and to bar fighters (p.143) from gaining more power through the NLRB to advocate for their labor rights. Middlebrook explains that the president of the United States appoints the NLRB’s general counsel. Upon appointment by President Trump in 2017, Peter Robb, a lawyer with a reputation for union busting, diligently went to work to reverse some Obama-era provisions that strengthened unions (Stern 2017). This is a curious agenda for an appointee to an organization founded on the notion of protecting workers’ rights. After Trump took office, the NLRB has seen an 11 percent drop in disputes filed by unions because of fears that the Republican-leaning board would be unlikely to rule in their favor (Wallender and Kanu 2019). Middlebrook also points out that the president of the UFC, Dana White, has had a long business relationship with President Trump. The UFC front man spoke at the Republican National Convention on behalf of Trump during the election and even visited the White House for dinner with the president just days after Middlebrook attended the meeting at the NLRB. Middlebrook would like to see an investigation into whether the UFC lobbied the president to ensure the NLRB ruled in their favor. Middlebrook summarizes: “It continues to be our opinion that this is just purely political string-pulling in order to cover the UFC.” He believes the promotion sought to prevent a determination on the status of UFC fighters as statutory employees, which could have much larger ramifications for the financial bottom line for the UFC than Smith’s singular case of retaliation.3

By strong-arming Region 4 into reversing its determination that Smith’s claims were worthy of consideration, the NLRB prevented a serious examination of how the UFC manages its workers. The politics of visibility in this case demonstrate how power operates to keep structural inequalities hidden from view. Smith, for example, wasn’t allowed to be present when her attorney was summoned to Washington to discuss her complaint before Peter Robb and the NLRB. After protesting Smith’s exclusion, Middlebrook recalls Robb explaining that claimants tend to become “too emotional” at these hearings to be included. The attorney later left the meeting thinking “this woman fights in a cage for a living, and you’re concerned that she’s going to be emotional in this conference room in D.C.?” The sexist excuse that a woman fighting for her rights would be “too emotional” further underscores what is at stake when inequality becomes visible. Smith is a charismatic activist who challenges the status quo. She is an empowered female athlete who might stand as a role model for women and girls in the ways that the UFC marketed Rousey; yet, the promotion dismissed Smith rather than celebrate her. The UFC’s trope of the empowered female athlete can be visible only if she elevates herself as an individual and toes the party line in the promotion. The UFC will not depict her as an empowered woman for speaking truth to power within the promotion or for using collective action to bring change. The power to prevent Smith from speaking for herself and for (p.144) others is a political act that benefits the UFC while ensuring the agency of its fighters remains limited.

Barriers to Unionization

Smith’s fight for labor equity in the UFC is precarious because standing up in the limelight to contest the UFC’s business practices has damaging consequences. Organizing MMA fighters has proven to be particularly challenging because visibility is a double-edged sword: it is key to raising support around issues of inequality, and yet it can result in a fighter’s dismissal from the UFC. Since even a contract with the UFC brings no job security, fighters face the promotion alone when they negotiate contracts that grant them little agency. I asked Leslie Smith, Kajan Johnson, and Lucas Middlebrook what they perceived as the barrier to fighters signing authorization cards and showing more vocal support of fighters’ rights. They were unanimous in their responses: “fear of retaliation.” That Johnson’s contract was also not renewed after he began organizing with Project Spearhead fuels fighters’ fears that voicing support for a union means they risk being cut from the roster. Or worse yet, as Smith explains, UFC athletes fear being “shelved” by the organization while under contract. Since UFC contracts prohibit UFC athletes from fighting professionally outside the organization and the fighters have no avenues for breaking contracts, the UFC could hold a contract over their head for several years without any obligation to schedule a fight. Lucas Middlebrook describes how fear of getting cut or shelved is a major deterrent to organizing fighters:

The UFC fighters are proving to be a really difficult group to organize from a union standpoint. The reason for that is the climate of fear that’s been created by the UFC. The amount of control that the UFC exerts over these fighters has done just that. It has created this perfect storm of fear of retaliation. Where the fighters don’t even want to be mentioned in the same Tweet as Project Spearhead, whether they agree with it or not. In fact, the large percentage of the people who sent in cards … made it painfully obvious that they didn’t want any mention that they had even signed a card to get out into the public realm.

Fighters fear that making the working conditions in the UFC visible may lead to dire consequences for their individual careers; so, most prefer to keep their heads down when it comes to unionizing.

Julie Kedzie adds that fighters often believe that they are all replaceable, which would make it easy for the UFC to cut them should they become visible union advocates. She says that fighters tend to believe “there will always be a replacement fighter that will come in and take [a fight] for less than the other fighter” if (p.145) they attempt bargaining or asking for more. This leaves many fighters feeling that having their name associated with union efforts is a huge risk, with little promise of reward. Retired UFC fighter Barbie Beeman told me that the prospect of signing an authorization card seemed pointless to many fighters. She said, “So why would you put yourself out there to do that? It’s probably not going to do anything for you. Not within your generation of fighting. So why would you put yourself on that blacklist if you don’t have to deal with that shit? Because it’s not going to do anything.” Ulrich Beck (2000) describes this phenomenon as the “individualization” of the work force—a process that centers the individual worker while maintaining a skepticism of collective action and solidarity. Many fighters remain skeptical that there is any safety in numbers and instead view joining a collective as a potentially detrimental form of visibility that presents more risks than just working in the conditions the UFC presents.

Standing out as a unionizer seems too risky for many fighters, but that doesn’t prevent them from discussing their precarious working conditions in private. Kajan Johnson clarifies that issues of labor and pay equity circulate in tightly guarded fighter circles instead of out in the open:

In the back chats and the back channels, face to face, in backrooms and locker rooms, everybody talks about [fear of retaliation and lack of fair revenue sharing]. It’s like a big joke for us, actually. Everybody laughs about how much money we don’t make. And how the public perception of UFC fighters … is that we’re on television and must be making … millions of dollars. That’s obviously not the case.

I spoke with several other UFC fighters who wish to remain anonymous on the issue of labor organizing for many of the reasons that Kedzie, Johnson, and Smith have described. Those anonymous athletes corroborated the shared experience of fighters whispering about the precarious nature of their jobs to other fighters they trust. Many of them also warned me that it would be difficult to persuade fighters to discuss these issues openly with me. Indeed, in the course of researching this book I found their prediction to be true.

Another factor hindering the organizing success of Project Spearhead is that UFC stars have refrained from publicly adding their names to authorization cards even though they are also susceptible to labor inequalities in the UFC. As the athletes who make the highest income in the UFC, some of these fighters perceive themselves as having less to gain and more to lose from collective action than the average fighter. Leslie Smith spoke with a high-earning UFC fighter who said

they were scared of losing their job. Someone that was at the very top of the UFC, top of their weight division, top of everything. They should have been 100 percent (p.146) secure in where they were at, but even they were saying they do not believe that fighters need to come together to get more rights. But they were worried about their job. They felt like they needed to get some more wins before they were able to stick their neck out.

These reservations acknowledged, I would venture that securing the voices of UFC stars would be a key path to growing Project Spearhead’s base of fighters. Champions and other stars bring visibility to a cause. For example, there was a great deal of initial buzz around the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA), which formed in 2016 with names like Georges St-Pierre, Donald Cerrone, and Cain Velasquez at the helm. MMA analysts are unsure if the association failed to live up to its initial media buzz because of internal strife among the organizers or external pressure from the UFC (Martin 2016; Okamoto 2016). Regardless, without star athletes collectively clamoring for change, it is more difficult to draw support from non-prominent fighters, who feel even more vulnerable, experience more economic insecurity, and are more replaceable in the UFC’s eyes.

An additional factor impeding Project Spearhead is that the UFC’s organizational structure is so individualistic and isolating for fighters that they rarely have an opportunity to speak with one another in a larger forum. Several hundred fighters personally witnessed Smith stand to speak about a union at the 2017 athlete retreat; however, UFC athletes rarely, if ever, gather together as a large group let alone build coalitions. Middlebrook says that the geographic distance among the global roster of fighters makes unionization a challenge. Even with an event like the retreat, Middlebrook is skeptical that fighters would feel secure enough to have an open discussion: “I think they would only engage in a really [productive] discussion if they truly knew no one from the UFC is watching and no one from the UFC is going to hear about [it].” Instead, Middlebrook proposes that having Smith go from gym to gym might be the only avenue to convince geographically dispersed fighters that a union could benefit them. Even that would be logistically challenging because Project Spearhead doesn’t have the financial resources to cover those travel costs.

Why Unionize?

Fighters fear making their support for a union fight public; yet, at the same time, visibility for Project Spearhead is central to galvanizing fighters as a collective front. A viable fighter’s union holds promise for ameliorating labor inequalities because unions offer fighters “a seat at the table” that is difficult to impossible to (p.147) obtain otherwise. A union would give all fighters greater ability to advocate for their careers, livelihoods, and even their physical health. Unions provide collective bargaining and protections from retaliation in order to make fighters’ needs and priorities visible. Project Spearhead has determined several key areas of concern that they have foregrounded for the collective betterment of the fighters. Below I examine four of these issues: the misclassification of fighters, access to the financial data of the company to ensure that fighters have a fair share of the revenue, health and disability insurance, and gaining a voice in company decisions about issues impacting the fighters. More important to this project as a whole, history tells us that women of all races have the most to gain from a collective voice advocating for fair treatment because “the best trade unions strive to counter inequalities and exclusions based on gender, class, ethnicity and other dimensions of social power” (Banks and Hesmondhalgh 2016, 267). As Kobe Bryant argued at the athlete retreat, a player’s union has the capacity to improve working conditions for all fighters.

The Misclassification of UFC Fighters

Project Spearhead seeks to address the misclassification of UFC fighters as independent contractors. The distinction between an employee and an independent contractor largely boils down to issues of control, and numerous law review articles argue that the UFC exercises more control over UFC fighters than the legal classification of “independent contractor” allows (e.g., Salminen 2017; Gaul 2016; Birren and Schmitt 2017; Same 2012). An employer exercises control over the employee by determining when, where, and how they work, while an independent contractor typically has more freedom and determination over those working conditions (Salminen 2017). For example, a large painting company employs numerous full-time employees and determines when, where, and how those employees work, and what uniforms they wear—all indicators of the company’s control over its workers. A painter who works as an independent contractor can determine which jobs they take, when they do the work, and how many projects they work on at once, which are indicators of a greater degree of agency than an employee. Fighters, on the contrary, must yield to the UFC’s when, where, and how while assuming most of the financial risks, as well as additional physical risks, of devoting their careers to fighting. For example, UFC fighters must notify the USADA of their whereabouts at all times for random drug testing and must adhere to a code of conduct in order to receive their Reebok sponsorship pay for their official UFC apparel. USADA regulations and the code of conduct both suggest a level of control over athletes that extends beyond typical contracted labor relationships.4

(p.148) UFC athletes further lack the individual agency to negotiate many labor issues within the promotion because of the ways its contracts favor UFC interests above athletes’. The UFC can void multiple-fight contracts or decide not to resign a fighter to a new contract, while the fighters remain legally bound to fulfill their contracts. UFC contracts also restrict an athlete’s ability to participate in broadcasted fighting contests that are not UFC sponsored, which effectively prohibits them from fighting for other promotions. This contract stipulation statistically impacts female fighters more than male fighters, because the UFC books women for fewer fights on an annual basis than men.5 A female athlete’s three-fight contract and a male athlete’s three-fight contract are statistically unequal because he will complete those three fights faster than she will, and she will have to wait longer between each payday in her contract. Beyond the gender inequality in the fulfilment of UFC contracts, the stipulation restricting fighters to one promotion is illogical because the very nature of freelancing is one’s ability to work for multiple employers at once. For example, Uber drivers can simultaneously work for Lyft or other rideshare companies in order to ensure they have the most opportunities to work (Weed 2019).6 Yet, once a fighter signs a contract with the UFC, that contract obligates them to fight exclusively for the promotion.

The misclassification of UFC fighters affects both male and female fighters alike; however, because there are far more federal and state labor laws for employees that are leveraged to protect women and people of color specifically, it stands to reason that the misclassification of fighters leaves these groups most vulnerable because they have less access to legal mechanisms to protect themselves as marginalized workers. As Heather Berg and Constance Penley (2016) write, “independent contractor law is organized explicitly to excuse employers from their responsibilities to workers … [and those workers] have little legal protection from discrimination in hiring or pay disparity” (159). Studying the adult film industry, Berg and Penley confirm that the status of independent contractor means that “rates for black women performers are a fraction of those of their white counterparts, for instance, plus-sized performers too are underpaid, and male performers can be blacklisted based on rumors of their having had same-sex sexual encounters” (163–94). Attorney Charlotte Alexander (2016) explains in an article on misclassification and discrimination that “employers are free to reject workers for jobs, fire them, and otherwise discriminate on the basis of sex, religion, or disability, for example, and to be absolutely explicit about their reasons for doing so, as long as those workers are classified as independent contractors” (908). She further analyzes the relationship between misclassified employees and their gender and race to show that misclassified (p.149) independent contractors are often overrepresented with women and/or people of color. Of the cases Alexander includes in her study, misclassified workers are less likely to win cases of discrimination filed under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination. As of this writing, UFC fighters haven’t filed gendered or racial discrimination lawsuits against the UFC, but cases in other professions suggest that reclassifying UFC fighters as employees will likely benefit those who are statistically more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace: women, people of color, and/or minoritized sexual identities.

Financial Transparency and Revenue Share

As I discussed in the introduction, fighters earn a small percentage (10–20 percent) of the UFC’s revenue. After removing the stars from the equation and deducting the associated costs of training for and participating in UFC events, most fighters take home a very modest amount of pay compared to the estimated worth of the company. When considering the median, women earn 68 percent of what male athletes make per fight and tend to fight less frequently. The promotion justifies these inequalities by arguing that the NFL, NBA, or MLB are an unfair comparison because the UFC has greater overhead costs in the production of its events. The UFC claims these production costs limit its ability to compensate fighters to a greater degree. As former UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta explained,

First and foremost, we absorb 100 percent of all production and marketing costs associated with the event. The NFL gets a license fee from Fox. Even boxing gets a licensing fee from HBO. Those media entities then roll in and operate the entire production. They do all of the marketing. So those expenses are not borne upon the actual league or entity. In our case, we televise the entire card. There’s over a thousand people who get paychecks when we do these events. It’s a massive, massive undertaking. … In addition to that, we’re building a sport. We’ve had to open up offices in various countries around the world, work to get laws passed in states all over the U.S. and Canada. When you actually take into account those costs that we bear, and other leagues don’t, we actually compare very favorably on an apples-for-apples basis.

(Quoted in Snowden 2013)

Fertitta’s description of the various costs associated with marketing, producing, and distributing globally broadcast UFC events seems logical in comparison to professional sports leagues. However, unlike the NFL, NBA, and MLB, the promotion isn’t obligated to show its balance sheets in order to prove its assertion that its fighters are fairly paid.

(p.150) Kajan Johnson, the vice president of Project Spearhead, finds the overhead costs defense difficult to swallow for a company valued at $7 billion (Reinsmith 2018a). He asks, “What are these exorbitant overhead costs that they incur that the NFL and the NBA doesn’t have?” Johnson admits that the UFC has a huge in-house production team to produce UFC live and pay-per-view events, but he also adds that the UFC has become much more efficient at its media production since Zuffa originally took over the UFC: “I think they’ve got it down to a science and I think it would probably be more expensive to outsource [production at this point].” Johnson remembers a recent conversation with Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Endeavor—the company that purchased the UFC in 2016. Johnson recalls Emanuel promising to increase fighter pay if the UFC was able to increase its profits. Johnson remains doubtful:

First of all, that’s a lie, otherwise we’d be getting paid more money already. Second of all, that’s just saying that your piece of the pie is not going to change. That you’re not willing to pay us more until the entire pie grows, which I believe to be wrong because your cut is more than enough already.

Despite Johnson’s skepticism about the UFC’s primary justification for current fighter pay inadequacies, he urges that the biggest issue is the lack of budgetary transparency. He adds, “How am I going to negotiate a fair wage if I don’t know what your profit is?” This is precisely the type of budgetary transparency Johnson, Smith, and Middlebrook advocate for through Project Spearhead. Smith believes that the lack of transparency enables the UFC to dodge the question of fair pay. The UFC claims that not all fighter pay is disclosed to the public, which is a way to deflect the criticism that it is failing to pay its athletes enough because the fighters and the broader public cannot confirm these claims. In effect, Project Spearhead is advocating for fighters to have access to UFC financials in order to ensure that fighters indeed receive a fair share of the revenue.

A collective bargaining agreement facilitated by a union would provide the fighters the means to negotiate the pay structure with the UFC and would better ensure that those currently most disadvantaged—that is, female fighters, and even more specifically Black female fighters—were fairly compensated. For example, between 2015 and 2018, the confirmed data on UFC payouts show that the promotion paid Black women a median of $16,000 per fight compared to a $30,000 median for other female athletes (see appendix B). Without a union, Black female athletes have little chance of advocating for improved pay. According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost half of all workers with union contractors are women and 35.8 percent are people of color (Bivens et al. 2017). Historically women and/or people of color make less than White men across a (p.151) wide variety of sectors; yet, studies show that unions elevate the wages of these minoritized groups to a greater degree than nonunionized minoritized workers. Unionized women have 9.2 percent higher salaries than nonunionized women and unionized Black workers make 14.7 percent more than nonunionized Black workers (Bivens et al. 2017). Black women make 65 cents on every dollar that White men make; yet, union membership reduces the gap so that Black women make 94.9 percent of what their White male counterparts make (McNicholas and Jones 2018). These statistics suggest that the unionization of UFC fighters would likely increase transparency so that fighters could better negotiate fair wages and benefits across gendered and racial difference.

Health and Disability Insurance

A third major issue for Project Spearhead is the current lack of comprehensive health and disability insurance for UFC fighters. The UFC provides health insurance when a fighter is injured while training for a contracted fight or if they are injured in the fight itself. Covered expenses include doctors’ visits, laboratory tests, and surgeries due to that injury but has a maximum benefit of $50,000 per year (Marrocco et al. 2011). When an athlete is not under contract for a fight, then routine doctors’ visits, injuries that occur outside of a contract, and other healthcare needs are the responsibility of the fighter. Smith cites health and disability insurance as her number one concern personally:

The fighters aren’t seventeen-year-old kids that appear out of nowhere to fight and disappear afterward. They’re real-life adults with families they need to support and mortgages they have to pay off. Being hurt and having extended medical issues is a big problem.

Smith says the level of risk fighters take to their long-term health in order to compete in the UFC necessitates comprehensive healthcare before, during, and after fights. Even if a fighter is able to get the UFC insurance to cover their injury at 100 percent, it doesn’t cover the fighter’s loss of income while recovering.

The UFC’s level of health coverage fails to take into account ongoing healthcare needs of a group of athletes in an extreme sport such as MMA. According to data released by the UFC’s Performance Institute, an average of 31.9 percent of fights end in a knockout (KO) or a technical knockout (TKO), which medical professionals classify as “concussive symptoms” indicating brain injury (UFC Performance Institute 2018). For the largest weight class, the heavyweights, 60.1 percent of fights end with a KO or TKO. Additionally, neuroscience research suggests that female athletes take longer to recover from concussions and experience more post-concussion symptoms than their male counterparts, (p.152) thereby suggesting the concussion crisis in contact sports may leverage a higher cost for female athletes (Broshek et al. 2005; Covassin and Elbin 2011). While the UFC has committed resources to studying the impacts of head injuries on the long-term health of the fighters at the Performance Institute, the promotion has no obligation to the ongoing comprehensive healthcare of current or former fighters impacted by these injuries when classifying fighters as independent contractors. NFL players, on the other hand, have full insurance benefits while they are active in the league and for five years after they retire. These players receive additional compensation should they develop neurological conditions that have been linked with repetitive brain injuries (NFL Play Smart n.d.). As more research studying head trauma comes to light, it is clear that repetitive brain injury, even if each single injury is considered minor, may have severe long-term health consequences. Fighters place themselves at risk without the promise of ongoing healthcare provisions by the UFC. The lack of comprehensive healthcare may impact female fighters to a greater degree over time if women take longer to recover from concussions.

Fighters are statistically likely to experience some sort of injury or need assistance with recovery even if they avoid head injuries in a fight. For example, of the twenty-four fighters on the UFC Phoenix Fight Night card in February 2019, UFC doctors placed sixteen fighters on medical suspension after their bouts, which indicates a significant injury preventing further fighting by that athlete until they can be medically cleared. Most medical suspensions ranged from 30 to 180 days depending on the severity of the injury (Reinsmith 2019a) and while the UFC will cover some portion of a fighter’s medical bills during the suspension, the athlete cannot earn an income from fighting until they are cleared. The causes for suspension for most events usually range from fractured bones to face lacerations to concussive symptoms. At UFC Phoenix, Cain Velasquez got a 180-day suspension for a knee injury, while Paul Felder was suspended indefinitely after he suffered a collapsed lung and needed emergency surgery (Helwani 2019). UFC doctors evaluate fighters immediately post-match and fighters must receive any additional procedures within thirty days of the fight in order for the UFC’s insurance to cover that injury (Dundas 2018). However, once the fighters return home after a fight, much of their recovery work begins. A staff doctor for Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, the fight team of UFC stars Michelle Waterson and Holly Holm, says standard recovery efforts include massage and manipulation, compression to combat swelling, and monitoring kidneys to ensure they aren’t overworked processing increased waste in the bloodstream from bruising and swelling (Dundas 2018). UFC health insurance does not cover these sorts of ongoing therapies.

(p.153) A Voice in Decision-Making

Project Spearhead advocates for a collective voice for fighters as the UFC makes decisions that have direct consequences for its athletes. In the promotion’s current structure, fighters have no formalized channels for advocating for their interests when it comes to UFC rules, policies, and procedures. As a result, Smith and Johnson both contend that an essential advantage of a union is a collective voice for fighters. Johnson says a union is necessary so “we can all speak with one collective voice to the company so they’re not able to divide and conquer as they have been doing.” The UFC is under no legal or contractual obligation to consult the people who would be most impacted by UFC policies and business decisions, namely the fighters themselves or their representatives.

For example, if the UFC had been required to consult with a fighter’s union prior to the promotion’s unilateral agreement to make Reebok the official apparel sponsor of the UFC, then the fighters could have negotiated to prevent a significant negative impact on their livelihoods. Prior to 2015, a major source of compensation for UFC fighters came through individually brokered sponsorship deals to wear the sponsor’s logo during their fights. Fight fans who joined the UFC’s viewership prior to 2015 might well remember the brand logos of Muscle Milk, Dynamic Fastener, or Affliction plastered across an athlete’s fight shorts, indicating sponsorship with that brand. Each fighter negotiated a range of sponsorships to support their professional fight careers and frequently wore several logos during a fight at once. Yet, in 2015, the UFC signed a deal with Reebok for the apparel company to become the exclusive sponsor of UFC outfitting and banned athletes from wearing other sponsors in the ring (Raimondi 2018). The promotion also began requiring its athletes to wear Reebok apparel at all UFC-sponsored events. Reebok itself compensates fighters using a system that rewards the athletes for longevity; UFC fighters with one fight under their belt receive $3,500 in sponsorship pay, fighters with more than twenty-one fights receive $20,000, and champions pocket $40,000 (Reinsmith 2019b). The move didn’t just significantly reduce the amount of sponsorship pay athletes could secure, it also limited fighter agency, which is an indication of employee-level control. Furthermore, in 2018 the UFC altered how fighters would be compensated through Reebok by rolling the pay from the apparel company into a set of “fight week incentive payments” with a few of its own additional stipulations for the fighters. Fighters must also abide by a “code of conduct” that subjects athletes to penalties, reductions in pay, or removal from a fight for criminal conduct or for what the UFC deems to be derogatory or offensive conduct. The restrictions that the Reebok partnership and the code of conduct places on fighters further demonstrates how much control the UFC has (p.154) over its “independent contractors,” which give merit to the claim that the UFC should either revert agency back to its fighters, such as the right to wear their own sponsors, or reclassify them as employees.

The Reebok deal fundamentally shifted a major source of income for all fighters, with compounded effects on women outside of straight White feminine normativity. The sponsorship tier fails to reconcile the fact that women were prohibited from fighting in the UFC until recently, even though they fought in other promotions. Fighters such as Miesha Tate have argued that the Reebok tier system is discriminatory against women because female fighters have only been in the organization since 2013. Their exclusion meant they had no possibility of acquiring the same number of fights as men who had been fighting professionally the same number of years but were fighting in the UFC before women were permitted. Even when Tate received the $40,000 for being champion of her division, she claims that the payout was about 20 percent less than she could make from the sponsors she had acquired for herself prior to the Reebok deal (Brennan 2016).

It’s important to note that Tate performs the athletic labor of femininity successfully, while other female fighters seeking sponsorships may find themselves lower within the UFC’s hierarchies of visibility. Women who are racial minorities, who are non-heteronormative, and who perform female masculinity are at a particular disadvantage in the UFC when considering that fighters historically relied on sponsorship money for a large portion of their income. Just as Paige VanZant receives more visibility and sponsorship on Instagram than Angela Hill, apparel companies have long privileged heterosexy White women in advertising, and the UFC’s formal business relationships support that status quo. The Reebok deal is another strong example of this type of disparity. In addition to the tiered pay system for fights, the apparel company also awarded additional sponsorships for a few UFC athletes. Each of the women initially awarded these additional contracts—Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Paige VanZant—were White women. Rousey and Jedrzejczyk were both champions of their divisions and Tate would later become champion, so one might surmise that Reebok courted only the most successful athletes. VanZant, however, was a curious addition to the other women in the group. At the time of writing, VanZant was ranked outside the top 15 in her division, but she secured one of these additional Reebok contracts before she was even ranked. The strawweight fighter is young, White, blonde, and conventionally attractive. She was also a contestant on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars reality competition show in 2016, signaling her mainstream appeal to audiences outside the sport. Compare VanZant to Cris Cyborg, who was one of the most dominant fighters in the UFC. Even though Cyborg was a featherweight champion and held a near-perfect record in MMA, she never secured (p.155) an individual Reebok contract while working for the UFC. Cyborg is Brazilian, very muscular, and fails to perform the athletic labor of femininity as well as VanZant does. The fact that beauty conventions in advertising impact female fighters outside the White feminine norm is further compounded by the realities that the majority of fighters are underpaid and that women already receive less than their male counterparts on average.

The prospect of being reclassified as employees, of having a greater share of the promotion’s revenue, of gaining comprehensive health and disability insurance, and of having a voice in UFC decision-making each suggest tangible ways the UFC fighters’ lives might be improved if they unionize, and in this sense Project Spearhead is on the right track. The challenge that remains is convincing the UFC, and even its parent company Endeavor, that the fighters deserve to be classified as employees and treated as such.

The WGA vs. Endeavor

In an era when precarious work like independent contracting and gig labor is increasingly common, companies have little internal incentive to make workers’ lives better when they can deny responsibility for contracted workers. As Chuck Kleinhans (2011) cautions us to remember,

[Precarity] is a deliberate policy and aspect of neoliberalism in its relation to the labor force. Such a policy aims to make the situation of owners, of capitalists, of employers … more flexible. Rather than full-time, continuous work, of indefinite duration, protected by labor unions and government regulations, with standard hours, social benefits, and a social wage (that is one that allows you to support a family), precarious work goes in the other direction.

Labor research agrees, on the contrary, that on average unionized workers experience increased wages, greater safety at work, more complete healthcare, and a greater rate of retirement benefits when they are represented as a collective (Bivens et al. 2017; Banks and Hesmondhalgh 2016; Curtin and Sanson 2016). As Miranda Banks and David Hesmondhalgh (2016) surmise, “trade unions have played a major role in efforts by workers to improve their conditions, defend their rights, and promote social justice in people’s working lives” (267). The fact that the UFC blocks efforts to bring the case of its independent contracting practices before the NLRB suggests that the promotion understands the financial implications for changing the classification of their workers. The UFC’s entire business model might have to drastically shift should it make fighters employees. As Jason Cruz (2020) notes, “the added overhead would sink many small-time [MMA] organizations as many could not finance the additional (p.156) costs” (59). Cruz’s point is astute and suggests far-reaching implications for the future of the sport. But then again, perhaps exploitative business models should sink. Companies should drastically adapt in order to establish more just working conditions for the individuals who form the base of their business and risk their health and welfare for that company to make its billions. Unions and the labor laws that support them are one avenue to incentivize the adaptation or, if change proves untenable, the extinction of businesses that exploit droves of independent contractors and gig workers.7

Consider the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) approach to challenging the UFC’s parent company, Endeavor, for business practices that benefit a company with numerous media holdings at the expense of individual clients. Since 2010, Endeavor, which has holdings in sports, talent agencies, and event management, among others, has been buying entities at various levels of the entertainment media supply chain, including its acquisition of the UFC in 2016. As Endeavor prepared to go public on Wall Street in 2019, it met opposition from the WGA, one of the largest entertainment unions in the business. The WGA claims that Endeavor’s vertical integration of its various business holdings is a conflict of interest that cannot effectively represent the interests of its clients. For example, Michelle Waterson is represented by WME (a talent agency) and is a fighter in the UFC, both of which Endeavor owns. Since her representation and her employer are intertwined, their fiscal relationship inherently raises suspicions about WME’s ability to fairly represent her in business dealings in the sport. As one of the WGA’s representatives argues of Endeavor’s efforts to become publicly traded, “It is impossible to reconcile the fundamental purpose of an agency—to serve the best interests of its clients—with the business of maximizing returns for Wall Street. Writers will not be leveraged by their own representatives into assets for investors” (Faughnder 2019). Effectively, the WGA is concerned that Endeavor’s business practices will benefit the agency and its investors at the expense of the clients it represents. Another key issue the WGA has cited is Endeavor’s practice of negotiating “packaging fees” with studios who employ talent represented by the agency. In a letter citing their opposition to Endeavor becoming public on the stock exchange, the WGA charges that

Endeavor leverages representation of its clients—primarily writers—to negotiate its own compensation, which includes upfront fees, paid out of the production budget of each episode, and a percentage of the TV series’ profits, rather than the traditional 10% commission on clients’ earnings.

(Writers Guild of America West 2019)

Talent agencies have traditionally gained their income from taking a commission from its clients’ earnings on a job; however, Endeavor now negotiates deals (p.157) that produce additional revenue streams for the company, but not for the writers or the other talent it represents. The WGA charges that this approach of working with studios gives Endeavor less incentive to negotiate individual deals that will benefit its clients. As a result, the union has created a code of conduct that prohibits agents from brokering packaging fees, and 1,400 union members have terminated their representation with Endeavor (Writers Guild of America West 2019). At the time of writing, the WGA and Endeavor are in court debating the holding company’s right to represent talent, buy talent, or profit on related talent business transactions all at the same time.

The lessons from WGA’s public fight with Endeavor offer two main takeaways. First, the business of MMA is increasingly tied to larger trends of conglomeration that give powerful companies the ability to leverage their clout to make decisions that benefit the company above individual workers—be they television writers or UFC fighters. The concentration of media firms and the vertical and horizontal integration of their related businesses all combine to further push workers’ rights to the wayside. It is an all too common neoliberal practice to grant businesses personhood status and consider it a company’s right to pursue their own American dream while amassing wealth. Meanwhile, the workers who make these dreams possible toil away at their own livelihoods without reciprocal support from those who contract them. A second, more optimistic, takeaway is that labor unionizing provides an infrastructure for disseminating information to make interested parties aware of how corporate organizational trends might impact individual workers and provides a legal arm for challenging companies like Endeavor in court. Political visibility remains one of the greatest assets of labor unions.

Visibility as a Political Tool

MMA fighters are naturally courageous people. It takes a lot of courage to step into the ring on national television and fight. Now we need to follow the courageous examples of factory workers, UPS drivers, teachers, and all the other workers across the country who have fought for a union and stood up for their rights. Fighters can draw a lot of strength, support, and inspiration from other workers who are fighting for a better future for themselves.

—Leslie “The Peacemaker” Smith (quoted in Brooks 2018)

The efforts of Leslie Smith and Project Spearhead have kept discussion about labor inequality alive on various digital and legacy platforms when many fighters had previously only whispered about the topic behind closed doors. Raising awareness and galvanizing support through making social justice causes visible (p.158)

The Fight for Labor Equity

Leslie Smith victorious. YouTube. UFC. UFC 198: Leslie Smith—Ready to Destroy Cyborg.

holds potential for challenging the power structures discussed in this book. I argue that visibility is precarious and can be co-opted by powerful entities, but this chapter posits that visibility can still be a political tool for the disenfranchised. In spite of losing the chance to compete on MMA’s largest stage, the Peacemaker believes in the work to bring the fighters’ plight into the light. She has given dozens of interviews about her organizing efforts through channels that range from niche MMA podcasts to a short segment on the satirical news show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, on the TBS television network. She also began campaigning for Andrew Yang, a 2020 democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency who included MMA labor rights on his campaign platform. Smith now fights in the MMA promotion Bellator and is also pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Rutgers University. She plans to attend law school to study labor and employment law, with the ultimate goal of passing legislation that will protect fighters from unfair labor practices such as those she’s experienced in the UFC.

Leslie Smith is just one social justice warrior, and she needs fellow fighters to believe collective action is a viable method for improving their working conditions. Men’s professional sports have longer histories with organizing on behalf of players to improve pay and to give athletes a voice, but the more recent success of athletes organizing in other women’s sports sends a very clear message for the future of women (and men) in the UFC: collective organizing works. In recent years, various organized groups of female athletes have taken action through unions and other affiliations to improve the conditions of play and pay around the globe. These players’ associations in women’s sports have made the fight for pay equity and working conditions in sports more visible, (p.159) including the USWNT’s and the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team’s successful bids to increase higher wages and improve travel and insurance benefits, and the Australian women’s cricket players organized efforts to increase their top athletes’ salaries by nearly $100,000 (Pierik 2017; Langone 2018). The WNBA’s players’ association also recently signed a new collective bargaining agreement that included unilateral salary increases and greater maternity and childcare support (“WNBA and WNBPA” 2020). Compared to an individual sport like MMA, team sports boast the distinct advantage of already working as a collective unit on the field and off.

Individual sports like MMA lack the advantage of already having a preconstituted group of athletes within a team. Nevertheless, the Committee on Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) is one example of how individual athletes still have the capacity to impact change through collective organizing even in an individual sport that showcases male and female competitors at the same events. Several female surfers and a local California politician formed the committee in 2016 to address unequal treatment of female athletes at California surf competitions and beyond (“About CEWS” n.d.). In just three years of advocacy work, CEWS successfully lobbied the World Surf League (WSL) to ensure that female surfers had equal access to its events. In 2018, the WSL announced that male and female surfers would begin receiving the same prize money after the CEWS sent a letter arguing the California-based league’s inequitable pay violated California civil rights laws (Duane 2019). CEWS has since advocated for women in professional cycling to receive equal treatment in competitions by lobbying the California Department of Transportation not to issue road permits due to the unequal treatment of women in cycling races (Almond 2019). Thus, organizing individual athletes to collectively speak as a group for their rights can be fruitful in a variety of sporting contexts, including individual sports such as surfing where men and women compete in separate divisions during the same event.

In order for Project Spearhead to successfully organize fighters, they will need to overcome the primary organizational conditions that prevent athletes from joining unionization efforts: fear of retaliation, lack of support from UFC stars, individualism, and isolation. Despite the distinct challenges of organizing in MMA, it is clear that unions can and do improve the working conditions for all their athletes, but specifically for women. If Project Spearhead or another union effort succeeds, it will also offer the rare example in professional sports where a players’ union works to the benefit of male and female athletes alike. Women don’t have to go it alone even though female athletes stand poised to benefit most from a union’s ability to advocate for the fair distribution of resources (p.160) across all fighters. An individual athlete is expendable within the organization, but hundreds of athletes at once are not—especially if UFC stars assist in making the fight visible. The vast majority of UFC athletes are disenfranchised, but they also remain central to the UFC’s business model because the promotion cannot exist without them. The only way for Project Spearhead or other advocacy efforts to take flight is to reconfigure the perception of the fighter as being an island unto themselves and instead leverage their political visibility into a collective front fighting for all.


(1.) The USWNT has won four FIFA World Cups, including the 2019 tournament, while the men’s team failed to even qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The final 2015 Women’s World Cup match was the most watched soccer game in U.S. history, and the team went on to bring in more revenue for U.S. soccer in the next three years than the men’s team (Bachman 2019). In 2016 alone, the women’s team generated $1.9 million more than the men’s team. Despite the USWNT’s ability to bring in viewership and revenue, the pay disparity between the women’s and men’s teams remains stark. Between 2015 and 2018, the USWNT players’ maximum wage was $4,950 per game, while the men’s maximum was $13,166 (Young 2019). In 2017, one of the ways the USWNT has been able to improve pay disparities, including a 30 percent increase in base pay, a doubling of bonuses, and increased per diem rates has been by leveraging their negotiating power via a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with U.S. Soccer (Das 2017). Yet, these gains are still slim compared to the U.S. Men’s National Team. The USWNT is continuing their fight.

(2.) Jason Cruz (2020) analyzes in-depth the antitrust lawsuit filed against the UFC in 2014 that addresses the issue of the UFC’s propensity for buying rival promotions and therefore limiting competition for elite fighters in other promotions. Several former fighters named as plaintiffs in the suit claim that the UFC engaged in “predatory practices” and that “the UFC held a monopsony and monopoly over the relevant markets for fighters,” allowing the further suppression of wages of UFC independent contractors because the UFC had allegedly stomped out competition (120). As of this writing the case is still pending. The UFC’s major defense is that they are not violating antitrust laws, claiming that the promotion was able to buy rival MMA promotions because of its “superior business acumen” (120).

(3.) Most of the labor laws the NLRB can enforce, including the right to form a union in the first place, apply to workers classified as employees and not as independent contractors, such as UFC fighters. None of these provisions apply to independent contractors; instead, UFC fighters must pay their own health insurance premiums, pay for healthcare costs apart from fight-related injuries, pay higher tax rates, and save for retirement on their own. By bringing the retaliation case to the NLRB, Smith (p.181) and Middlebrook believed that they had sufficient justification to force the NLRB to determine if the UFC has misclassified fighters as independent contractors while treating them like employees and pave the way for fighters to form a union.

(4.) Various law review articles indicate that there are several other criteria beyond those discussed here that could also be used to argue that UFC fighters are treated as employees while being misclassified as independent contractors (see Salminen 2017 for more examples).

(5.) In 2018, male fighters had an average of two fights per year, while female fighters averaged one fight per year.

(6.) Most rideshares only count “work” as the time the driver spends driving to the customer and driving them to their destination. The time the driver is waiting for someone to request a ride is not considered “working,” so many drivers can keep two or more apps open while they wait for customer on Uber or Lyft, for example (Weed 2019).

(7.) For example, California passed a 2019 state law that provides strict criteria for classifying workers as independent contractors, causing businesses like ridesharing and freelance journalism to fall outside the boundaries of what counts as independent contracting since these workers are central to those business models (McNicholas and Poydock 2019). It remains to be seen how the law will impact the UFC’s ability to hire contracted fighters for events in California. One analyst suggests that the WWE, for example, may be able to work around these laws in California by grounding its contracts in the legal jurisdiction of Connecticut, where the WWE is based (Greene 2019). (p.182)