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The uncomfortable lessons of Dana White’s slap

UFC President Dana White, attending a weigh-in at a July event in Dallas. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
6 min

In the days since Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White was caught on video slapping his wife and through the fog of silence from his most powerful allies and the scolding from cultural observers that no one is talking about it — when the very nature of their public outcry means someone is in fact talking about it — there have been uncomfortable lessons. The video appeared to uncover some ugly secrets inside the marriage of Dana and Anne White. A disagreement spilled over in public, both parties turned to violence to solve it and now, predictably, they have asked for privacy as they deal with the aftermath.

But the grainy, 49-second clip — and the reaction to it — has revealed plenty about us. All the unnerving bits that get whitewashed, a very apt word that describes how the worldwide leader in sports and the UFC’s parent company have protected their boy, Mr. White. The warped views on violence and retribution that persist. And the burden falling mostly on women to advocate for consequences.

When White, a master of P.R., immediately booked the first stop of his apology tour, he came across as contrite. And for a second, he might have sounded even gentlemanly when he said, “There’s never, ever an excuse for a guy to put his hands on a woman.” How chivalrous. It sounds so honorable and refined. But those very words that have seeped into the public conversation — don’t put your hands on a woman — are too sanitized. It’s a nice thought, a few simple words bunched together, but they’re not the right ones.

Jami Schnurpel, the director of public affairs at the Julian Center, an Indianapolis-based organization that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, wants to make sure people use the right words. Intimate violence looks like grabbing someone’s arm, restraining them from leaving — as White did. And reacting to a slap to the face, with two retaliatory slaps — as White did. Then arm wrestling and shoving someone away — as White did, when he put his hands on a woman.

“If we use terminology that is comfortable for everybody else, then we minimize … the event. If it’s assault, it’s assault. If it’s rape, it’s rape. There are names for these things,” Schnurpel told me in a conversation Wednesday. “You’re naming what it is, and you’re not trying to dilute it. … That’s not fair to the recipient or the victim.”

The put your hands on language is too simple and not at all like the complicated debate on whether it should be expected for a man to return fire with fire after he is hit first. Kandee Lewis, executive director of the Positive Results Center in Gardena, Calif., has often heard that excuse spun into an explanation. That provoking someone — a man or woman — is just cause for a physical response. Or in this case, excusing White, who once thought of himself as a boxer, for reciprocating a blow from a woman who is far from his weight class because she hit him first.

“You can provoke a person, but you can also easily walk away,” Lewis said, sharing the same lesson she has tried to teach the men and women she has encountered over her 15 years as an advocate for the prevention of domestic violence. “You can be angry, you can be upset, but the physical violence is unacceptable.”

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Lewis added: “Let’s not shame or blame the victim. We have a tendency to do that. We want to say it was her fault because she shouldn’t have hit him. We want to say it was their fault because they were drinking. There is no reason or excuse. None whatsoever.”

There are many men who stand along with women against domestic violence. The president of the Julian Center is Jeff Brown, a man. However, too often it’s women who burn with the hottest indignation over this wrong, who have to carry the discussion and make sure somebody is talking about it.

And this week, a group of women in politics decided to take on that responsibility. The California Legislative Women’s Caucus had waited long enough. More than a week of waiting for something meaningful to be done by ESPN, which exclusively airs UFC fights, and Endeavor, the owner of UFC. The corporations have met this moment with silence — or worse, that televised segment on “First Take” in which Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim acted as meek defense attorneys on White’s behalf and not as opinionated sports personalities paid to shape the conversation.

So the women wrote a letter. Its content was expected: The group called for the “immediate removal” of White as UFC president. (On Wednesday, White told reporters that “Me leaving hurts the company, hurts my employees, hurts the fighters. It doesn’t hurt me” and that “I’ve owned this. I’m telling you that I’m wrong.”) Because corporations care more about how public perception impacts the bottom line, any financial repercussions — Endeavor’s stock price fell after the video surfaced — seem likely to have more impact than the legislative caucus’s pointed words. Still, their hope for some consequence for White’s actions serves a greater purpose.

“Most importantly, we are deeply aware of how impactful our actions are on the minds of young people, who learn from what we tolerate and what we condemn,” the group wrote.

They’re right. Young people should learn that all behavior has consequences, and Dana White should not be the face of an entertainment corporation after that behavior. But there are limits to what we condemn, especially when fame and money are involved.

A few days after the video of White surfaced, boxer Gervonta “Tank” Davis — who last month was arrested after allegedly striking a woman on the right side of her head — staged his latest prize fight in the District. Before the fight, while discussing Davis’s fraught past, the president of Showtime Sports argued that “to a point there’s a level of forgiveness and a recognition that he’s a work in progress.”

Yet another nice thought. And just another lesson on what we will tolerate.