RIGHTLY OR WRONGLY, I felt a little bit of sympathy for Conor McGregor when he put himself in the eye of a storm of racism accusations during that tedious press tour with Floyd Mayweather during the summer.
“He’s not really a bad fella,” I’d assure people. “He just opens his mouth without thinking sometimes.”
Conor McGregor, a racist? Not in my estimation. Ignorant and stubborn?
Ignorant to the racial tensions simmering in the world around him, and too stubborn to defuse the situation with a simple apology instead of clumsily holding his ground by referencing his passion for rap music.
McGregor’s manager, Audie Attar, admitted that his client made a mistake by asking Mayweather to “dance for me, boy”, but McGregor had already dug the hole deeper by claiming to be “black from the belly button down” — his attempt to bury the allegations of racism “in a playful way,” he said.
If I have a tendency to give McGregor the benefit of the doubt in such instances, perhaps it stems from having had a first-hand view when this rags-to-riches journey was in its infancy.
My first event in a previous role as media manager for Cage Warriors Fighting Championship featured a 23-year-old from Dublin who was then at the foot of a mountain he’d reach the summit of within four years. You’ve heard the story by now.
Having seen him at a time when mixed martial arts had still given him nothing, it’s difficult not to admire McGregor now that his entire sport is in the palm of his hands as a result of his own hard work. On top of that, my own interactions with him only ever suggested that he was a likeable fella.
Nevertheless, while erring on the side of caution is often a wise approach to assessing public outrage, one’s impartial view shouldn’t be impaired.
McGregor may have thought he was in a private setting when he repeatedly referred to Andre Fili as a “faggot” while he consoled team-mate Artem Lobov following last weekend’s loss at UFC Gdansk, but that explanation doesn’t hold up. Nor does it matter.
The majority of his life has played out in front of cameras for the past four years — the results of which will appear on cinema screens next week — so he knows by now that private moments in the public eye are scarce. And he’s certainly not going to find them at an event taking place on a stage where he’s the only show in town.
On social media, McGregor’s most fervent supporters have sought to shield him from subsequent criticism by bemoaning a proliferation of snowflakism in a politically correct world gone mad, when some logic and rationale is what’s required to justify any credible defence.
Their problem is that there isn’t any. How many of those who have tried to dilute the meaning of the word, claiming it doesn’t have homophobic overtones, have ever experienced discrimination because of their sexuality? The use of such language doesn’t need to be a product of homophobia in order for it to be offensive. An open confession of prejudice isn’t required before it hurts.
Given that he publicly expressed his support for a ‘yes’ vote in the 2015 marriage equality referendum, there’s almost certainly no bigotry at play here on McGregor’s part. However, his verbal recklessness hasn’t gone unnoticed by the community the word “faggot” was originally intended to disparage.
“It’s a very hurtful word that affects LGBT kids when they hear it,” said Irish movie director John Butler on Newstalk’s Off The Ball this week. “It’s very easy not to use and no one would argue that it isn’t used in a widespread manner up and down the country.
“But that isn’t a good argument as to why it should stop being used. I don’t really see much nuance around that. It’s a pretty difficult thing to hear when you’re a young LGBT kid trying to make your way in the world, and particularly trying to play sport.”
This isn’t a case of much ado about nothing. It’s not a social justice conspiracy being driven by the media. Its not akin to a teenager using that word to describe a friend who wouldn’t play football after school until his homework was done. Adults, and particular those in positions of influence, are held to higher standards.
It’s about an odious term, a blight on our lexicon which needs to be erased with a view to moving towards a time when homosexuality is no longer something that people feel compelled to hide or suppress. No one should encounter a dilemma when it comes to expressing who they are, but as long as there’s acceptance of words like “faggot”, the internal struggle will continue for many gay people.
That someone of Conor McGregor’s stature and influence used the word matters. If it didn’t, the UFC wouldn’t have tried to brush it under the carpet by deleting the footage from their social channels.
“I feel like the UFC needs to come out and make more of a stand in these situations,” said Dave Doyle, a prominent — and openly gay — US-based mixed martial arts journalist with MMAFighting.com, while discussing McGregor’s comments on Sherdog’s ‘Press Row’ podcast.
“The UFC is owned by a giant Hollywood conglomerate now (Endeavor). Ari Emanuel is the CEO and just last month he got a major award from the LGBT Centre in Los Angeles for his contributions to the community. Meanwhile, he’s overseeing this entity that’s just homophobia run wild.
“I feel like it’s been a bit of a failure on Endeavor’s part. Come out, say something, have some sort of policy, but don’t take an award and call yourself a hero to the LGBT community and then let this go without comment or reprimand.”
He added: “Conor is on a platform that other people aren’t so he shouldn’t be speaking like that. He should apologise, he should come out and say something.”
McGregor has previously spoken of how he’s not entirely comfortable with the idea of being a role model. Unfortunately for him, that role isn’t optional when so much of his success is dependent on the adoration of the public.
He’s an icon for the many who mimick him, from his style to his statements. “Who the fuck is that guy?” was replaced by “You’ll do nothin’!” Most recently the catchphrase was “Fuck the Mayweathers”. To suggest that the words he uses don’t have any impact on those who idolise him would be naive.
When he spoke out in favour of gay marriage, it was undoubtedly an authentic declaration of support. But that’s precisely why an apology here is necessary. Perhaps he views acknowledging an error and expressing regret as a sign of weakness, but a genuine apology would represent a much stronger response than the silence of the past week. Ignorance and stubbornness, again.
McGregor cops plenty of unjustified flak, particularly from within his own country, and there are often agendas involved which seek to denegrate him as a character, as well as the legitimacy of his sport. But he has developed a penchant for crossing the line and this situation is an example.
If someone in his position is unable to take a considered approach to the words he uses, then instead he must be prepared to acknowledge when it goes awry.