Dana White addressing Sean Strickland comments after UFC 297. Dana White addressing Sean Strickland comments after UFC 297. (UFC on YouTube.)

The comments UFC fighter Sean Strickland made at a press conference this week ahead of his headlining middleweight title defense in Toronto at UFC 297 Saturday sparked a lot of backlash. When reporter Alexander Lee of MMAFighting.com asked Strickland about a social media post where Strickland said he would think he had “failed as a man” if he had a gay son, Strickland responded by calling Lee (who described himself as an ally of the gay community) as “an infection” and also ranting about transgender people (“10 years ago, to be trans was a mental f***ing illness”).

That led to blowback, and to UFC president and CEO Dana White being asked about this at a press conference Saturday night (following Strickland’s loss to Dricus du Plessis). And that in turn led to quite the response from White. That all starts around 14:50 in the clip below:

The reporter there asks “You obviously give a long leash to your fighters about, you know, what they can say when they are up there with a UFC microphone, and you are getting into territory of, like, homophobia, transphobia. Is there…” White then cuts him off with “I don’t give anybody a leash. A leash? Free speech. Control what people say, going to tell people what to believe, tell people…I don’t f***ing tell any other human being what to say, what to think. There’s no leashes on any of them.”

White continues from there: “That’s ridiculous to say I give somebody a leash. Free speech, brother. People can say whatever they want and they can believe whatever they want. And I don’t think there’s any…we had two gay women who fought in the co-main event. They sat on the stage with Sean Strickland. They could give a s*** what Sean Strickland thinks, or what he says, or what his beliefs are, or what his opinions are.”

There are a few things at play here. First, Strickland’s comments were remarkable for their specific venom towards both individuals (Lee, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau) and groups (gay and transgender people), and that’s part of what sparked more backlash than even things he’d said previously. And White speaking for the “two gay women who fought in the co-main event” (Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva) is certainly a choice And as the reporter notes to White here, the comments from Strickland in question here came at an official UFC press conference, not just on social media.

That even sparked some calls for UFC broadcaster ESPN to apologize for Strickland’s remarks, including from Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz executive producer Michael Ryan Ruiz. And Ryan Ruiz had an interesting note on this Sunday. There, he discussed how different White’s comments here seem from how he handled 2013 transphobic comments from Matt Mitrione on fighter Fallon Fox, which led to a two-week suspension for Mitrione:

Yes, Mitrione was going after one specific fighter and Strickland was commenting on transgender people more broadly. And it’s possible that Mitrione’s remarks violated the UFC code of conduct (cited in that suspension) in a way Strickland’s did not. But it is interesting to go back to that 2013 statement and read “The UFC is a friend and ally of the LGBT community, and expects and requires all 450 of its athletes to treat others with dignity and respect.”

It’s also interesting that White engages more with the “leash” image than the substance of the question. And he absolutely can take issue with that wording if he wishes. But that’s not an uncommon turn of phrase when discussing what a corporation’s employees can say in public, especially at events representing that corporation. (As always, though, White has said plenty of controversial things in public while representing the UFC himself, including in several dustups with media.)

But the larger question is just how far White will go with “Free speech, brother. People can say whatever they want.” There has been a line there in the past, as with suspensions like Mitrione’s. It’s unknown if there currently is a line on what UFC fighters can say at press conferences. But White doesn’t seem to think Strickland crossed it.

[UFC on YouTube]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.