A lot of boys view professional athletes with a certain amount of reverence. As a kid growing up in the ’90s in Green Bay, Wis., you can probably imagine what I thought about guys like Brett Favre, Mark Chmura and Darren Sharper. These were heroes of the gridiron whose superhuman feats of athletic greatness brought smiles to Packers fans the world over. In my young, naive eyes, professional athletes who could perform with such excellence on the field surely had to apply that same ethic to the rest of their lives.
It would be laughable if it wasn’t a viewpoint held so ubiquitously by school-aged boys, not just in Green Bay, but everywhere.
Brett Favre’s drug addiction would come to light the spring of 1996, but most of that was forgotten by the time he led the Packers to their first Super Bowl win in nearly three decades the following January. This would not, of course, be the last we’d hear of less-than-superheroic behavior from the former NFL MVP, but it was the first time that many in my generation realized that these men dressed in green and gold might not actually be the examples of perfection we’d convinced ourselves that they were.
Chmura would be in the wrong kind of spotlight next when he was accused of sexually assaulting the babysitter of his children during a post-prom party. Chmura would ultimately be found not guilty, but acknowledged that his behavior that night in suburban Milwaukee, which reportedly included sharing both alcohol and a hot tub with underage females, was inappropriate regardless of the court’s findings. Today, he’s more known among Packers fans for this very public late-career ordeal than for his exploits between the sidelines.
And then there’s Sharper, who certainly seemed like a model citizen during his eight seasons in Green Bay, never even making the newspapers for anything other than his exemplary play in the Packers’ defensive secondary. He’d go on to experience more professional success in Minnesota and New Orleans before retiring from the NFL after the 2010 season to begin a broadcasting career. It seemed like a natural transition for the affable Sharper, who looked like he was set to join so many other NFL alumni who found a comfortable life after football in the television studio. All of that came crashing down earlier this year when Sharper became the target of sexual assault charges in multiple states. The latest accusations state that Sharper allegedly drugged and raped two women in Los Angeles and another in Arizona in 2013. Sharper, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, faces similar allegations in Louisiana, Nevada and Florida but has not been officially charged.
I wish these were the only three examples I could think of when it comes to professional athletes engaging in behavior that calls into question their revered place in our society, but these are just three guys from one era on one team in one sport. The truth is, every single professional sports organization must repeatedly deal with the unfortunate reality that some of the people in their employ are going to do some things to not only tarnish their own names, but potentially those of the companies from whom they receive a paycheck.
While the prevailing examples are obviously Ray Rice (running back suspended indefinitely by the NFL and released by the Baltimore Ravens after TMZ released a video of his assault on his then-fiancé), Greg Hardy (Carolina Panthers linebacker convicted of assaulting an ex-girlfriend in June, played in Panthers’ first regular season game, deactivated for Week 2) and Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings running back charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child, deactivated for Week 2), the UFC has its own mess to address in the area of its fighters’ behavior outside the cage, and it’s one that seems reasonably easy to clean up.
This past February, UFC light heavyweight Thiago Silva was arrested after allegedly making threats against his ex-wife and others at a Florida MMA academy before barricading himself inside his house. Members of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s S.W.A.T. team were involved in detaining Silva, who was reportedly armed during the standoff with law enforcement and had in the days and weeks leading up to his arrest allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife on multiple occasions, according to reports. Soon after his arrest, Silva was released by the UFC, at which time company president Dana White vowed that the light heavyweight would never again fight in the Octagon.
It seemed like a pretty cut-and-dry situation, but changes were afoot. In the months since Silva’s arrest, his ex-wife has reportedly been unresponsive with investigators and appears to have left the country entirely. With Silva’s accuser no longer able to provide testimony to the court, all charges against the Brazilian have been dropped. Perhaps the most interesting twist to this story came just a little later, though, when the UFC announced last week that Silva had re-signed with the organization.
Pressed for comment on the decision, particularly in the wake of the Rice/NFL news, Dana White had this to say to Fox Sports 1:
“…[T]he police have already investigated this entire thing, and they let [Silva] go. When I said [Silva would never again fight for the UFC], there was a SWAT team around his house and he had allegedly done these things. It wasn’t looking good for him at the time. He went through the process and he came away with no charges. You’ve got to bring the guy back.”
Really? You’ve got to bring the guy back? Let’s assess the positives and negatives of Thiago Silva, UFC fighter.
We’ll start with the negatives. It’s not like Silva actually went to trial for the heinousness he’s accused of perpetrating and was officially cleared. Rather, prosecutors were not able to proceed with charges because Silva’s ex-wife left the country. Yes, our legal system operates under the presumption of innocence, but let’s not pretend that Silva was actually acquitted of all charges after going through the entire judicial process. Maybe Silva’s accuser left the country because she knew the charges wouldn’t stick, or maybe she thought that Silva would silence her for good if she stuck around to testify. Whatever the reason, it was the accuser’s hasty departure, not the proclamation of a judge or jury, that allowed Silva to walk free. Is the result the same from a legal perspective? Sure. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that these circumstances somehow remove Silva from suspicion and that his image has not been significantly tarnished.
Since we’re here, let’s talk about Silva’s image. Aside from his questionable record against the elite of his division, Silva has twice been suspended from fighting, first for falsifying a urine sample and then for testing positive for marijuana. Yes, Silva has won his last two UFC fights, but he missed weight for his most recent contest, an October 2013 bout with Matt Hamill that Silva would win by decision. Aside from the significant notoriety Silva has garnered for his actions outside the cage, his most significant feat since 2009 is knocking out Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, a current member of the light heavyweight top 10, in June 2013.
It’s this last point that makes the UFC’s re-acceptance of Silva particularly confusing. That is, even ignoring the dropped charges of aggravated assault, multiple suspensions and a failed weight cut (an act for which other UFC fighters have been recently and strongly criticized on its own), Thiago Silva is, relative to his fellow 205ers, merely above average. Perhaps if Silva was one of the promotion’s big stars (meaning someone who compels people to buy its pay-per-views), his reinstatement would at least make sense from the most cynical possible perspective. Perhaps you’ve heard by now that the Minnesota Vikings, fresh off their 30-7 home loss to the New England Patriots, will activate Adrian Peterson (the team’s best player by far) for this Sunday’s game, despite the grotesque images of his son’s lacerated legs circulating the internet. The Vikings’ general manager insists that the organization cares about the well-being of children, and that Peterson’s updated availability has nothing to do with his talent on the field. I have no doubt that the first part of that is true, but if you also believe the second part, I’ve got some land to sell you.
Here’s my point: If Thiago Silva was Jon Jones or Cain Velasquez, it might at least make sense (again, applying logic in the coldest, most uncaring way possible) to entertain the possibility of bringing him back into the UFC after such graphic accusations of domestic violence. He’s not, so his rapid reinstatement despite being involved in an armed standoff with police is somewhat puzzling, charges or not.
The positive side of Silva’s continued employ with the UFC is that he will enter a crowded light heavyweight top 20 and will serve as a recognizable draw in Brazil. That’s it.
To its credit, the UFC has, more than any other professional sports organization, done so much to highlight the accomplishments of female athletes to the extent that MMA has quickly become one of the most popular women’s sports in United States. Women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has been one of the UFC’s most promoted stars since the day she arrived in the company. The UFC has partnered with the all-female Invicta FC promotion to broadcast its events on Fight Pass. Perhaps most significantly, the current season of The Ultimate Fighter will introduce an entire new women’s division into the UFC’s ranks, and surely make a star or two in the process. Sure, sometimes company executives or its fighters will say the wrong thing and, yes, the UFC has been associated with fighters who have done some pretty deplorable things, but the closest thing any other sport has to what the UFC has done for female athletes is the WNBA, and I’m guessing far more sports fans can identify Ronda Rousey than can identify the reigning WNBA MVP (Maya Moore…and yes, I had to look it up). There are no professional women’s football, softball or hockey leagues of any import, so in that environment, the UFC doesn’t look so bad.
In the case of Thiago Silva, the UFC had an opportunity to take a bold step (but, really, not that bold at all) and continue to maintain its professional distance from a guy who is strongly suspected of some truly awful things. Acknowledging once more that the charges were dropped after his accuser left the country, there’s still the matter of the police standoff that he was involved in, on top of his two suspensions and weight-cutting issues. Instead, for reasons that are beyond even my most financially focused reasoning, non-contender Silva finds himself once again with a UFC contract. The UFC has cut fighters for being boring, but Thiago Silva gets chance number four, all while Dana White talks about how seriously the promotion takes domestic violence issues.
Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, that the only times we read Thiago Silva’s name from this point forward are when we read specifically about MMA. Fans took notice when the UFC re-signed Silva, and they’ll certainly notice if that decision ends up blowing up in the company’s proverbial face.