Feature image: Fallon Fox – Vice News
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in its purest form is two elite athletes using their perfected fighting techniques, and years of training to conquer their opponent abilities. Since the beginning, MMA matches have always taken place between two athletes of the same sex. On March 5, 2013, a female fighter by the name of Fallon Fox came out as a transgender MMA athlete after her first two professional fights. This raised many questions and concerns within the MMA organization and athletic commissions as how to proceed with this emerging information. “As a result of the revelation, Fox’s MMA licensing organizations subjected her to medical review to verify that she met the medical requirements to fight as a trans woman”(McClearen, 2015). Many different opinions were immediately voiced on whether or not Fox should be allowed to continue to compete with women, or if she should be forced to compete in the men’s division. With our gaining, and hopefully soon complete, acceptance in society of transgender athletes, it is impossible to say that Fallon Fox will be the last transgender MMA athlete. Thus, we must come together and make competing transgender athletes a norm within society and eliminate many false facts and pretenses. However, with the political economy of our news sources and their opinions, contradicting coverages still linger surrounding Fox’s professional fights against other female athletes. After analyzing how various media outlets covered Fallon Fox coming out as a transgendered athlete, and their attempts to shape societies opinion on transgender athletes, what can this tell us about the role of the media and future of sex and gender in combat sports?
Becoming Fallon Fox
Fallon Fox was born on November 29th, 1975, anatomically male to the name Boyd Burton. However, she “had feelings about being a woman since her pre-pubescent years”(Stets, 2013). As years went on, Fox was forced to live in a body that did not feel natural to herself or who she knew she was. According to Stets interview with Fox (2013), Fox listened to her mind and not her body and “began some counseling, and in 2006, decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery”(Stets, 2013). She then took the life-changing journey to Thailand to have the surgery completed. “It was successful and finally it was like my mind matched my body. I had become the person I felt was inside of me all along”(Stets, 2013). Begining her new life she turned to MMA to develop her strength training and found her passion.
Fallon Fox – Low Kick MMA
In our society, when news breaks such as that of Fallon Fox revealing to the world that she was the first and only transgender professional MMA athlete; media outlets and those alike all try and get their version and opinions of the story out first. Although, due to the political economy of our media, each story tends to differ and have their own biases.
“The political economy of media is a theoretical perspective that seeks to understand the interrelationships of wealth, power, and the media and cultural systems in societies – including sports and sports media”(Corrigan, 2014)
We rely so heavily on our media, and for the most part, can subconsciously find ourselves falling into their biases.”When issues surrounding transgender and intersex athletes receive media attention, they often are sensationalized in a way that could produce misperceptions”(Krane & Barak, 2012). The media went crazy when the news broke, and opinions clashed, making it difficult as a consumer of the media to understand the situation clearly. “Heated debates in sports media about the fairness and morality of a ‘former man’ competing against women ensured Fox’s presence in the spotlight for some time to come” (McClearen, 2015).
According to The Economist, Fox News has a distinct “right-wing opinion and commentary, though the channel insists that its news reporting is unbiased. Fox is famous for being opinionated rather than for being profitable”(Anonymous, 2011). Days after Fallon Fox bravely came out to the public with her story, Fox News decided to come out with their own. The headline of their op-ed piece written by Steven Crowder stated: “Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox shouldn’t be allowed to beat up women“.
The articles main argument is that “Unless you were born and raised a woman, you don’t go around hitting chicks”(Crowder, 2013). The author is clearly trying to appeal to those words that every parent tells their child, ‘boys should never hit a girl’. In this, Fox News does not identify or acknowledge Falon Fox as the women she has now become. They are projecting to their audience and readers that Falon Fox is indeed a man. Not once in the article does the author ever refer to Fallon Fox as a ‘she’. This only serves to slow down the progression we have been desperately trying to make in society.
The language and scenarios used depict her as a big bully, beating up defenseless girls in the schoolyard. “If you were to watch these fights, it would look very much like you would expect…a man knocking a woman unconscious”(Crowder,2013). The author never once comments on her skills or hard work training as a fighter, but solely bases her dominance over her opponents due to her being born a male. “It is still undeniable that for this person’s entire life, that he had the hormonal profile and capabilities of a man”(Crowder, 2013).
Clearly, to Fox News gender plays a very important role in combat sports. They see the ‘advantages’ that come from someone being born male as outweighing the skills and abilities they can develop from years of hard work and training. This should not be surprising as “In seeking truth and reporting it, the “story” of LGBT athletes often centers on the novelty of their sexuality”(Staurowsky, 2013).
The views they are expressing to the public are clearly due to their right-wing biases and conservative beliefs. The article even states “leftists have come out championing the cause, as Fallon ragdolls female opponents into oblivion”(Crowder, 2013). Clearly revealing the political economy entangled in Fox News as a media source.
On another side of the spectrum, the popular news site CNN produced their own take on the story. Research, done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2011) considers CNN to be an unbiased news source. Although many believe they have more left-leaning ideologies.
Their headline prompted “First transgender MMA fighter goes public“. The first sentence of the article states “Born a man, Fallon Fox became a woman through surgery and then trained to fight in mixed martial arts”(Martinez, 2013). Instantly, CNN recognized and accepted that Fallon Fox is a woman. The author focuses on the facts such that “Fox didn’t disclose until after the fight that Fox had a sex change operation”(Martinez, 2013). As well as the MMA’s guidelines for transgender athletes, “mixed martial arts guidelines don’t require a sex-change surgery, but they do require two years of hormone therapy for transgender fighters”(Martinez, 2013). Further stating that Fox had every right to compete in the women’s division.
Martinez sticks strictly to facts and does not make any of his own judgments or opinions involving anyone in the unfolding controversy. I believe CNN’s article to be very unbiased. It does not put Fox down for her participation, nor does it praise her for her bravery of coming out as MMA’s first transgender athlete. However, he ends the article on the note that two of Fox’s previous opponents would be open to a rematch. “Newsome wants to fight Fox again, Hamilton said ‘We would love a rematch,'(Martinez, 2013). Leaving the reader on the note that Fallon should and will be allowed to continue to showcase her MMA abilities in the women’s division.
Joe Rogan vs Fallon Fox – Bleacher Report
Joe Rogan, is a popular Ultimate Fighter Champion (UFC) commentator, comedian, and mixed martial arts guru. Rogan’s position as an MMA commentator gives him a lot of influence with spectators and fans of the sport. He has come under a lot of scrutinies for his comments surrounding Fallon Fox on his Joe Rogan Experience Podcast.
– “She wants to be able to fight women in MMA; I say no f***ing way. I say if you had a d*ck at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a d*ck. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a f***ing man. That’s a man, OK?” (Rogan, 2013)
– “She’s not just huge, she’s got a f***ing man’s face. I mean, you can wear all the lipstick you want” (Rogan, 2013)
Our media outlets have greatly evolved from just news sources. With podcasts gaining in popularity, more and more people are turning to them for their daily news. “The fact is that podcast use is growing; more and more people are using podcasts to obtain information”(Anderson, 2009). I just recently became an avid listener of Joe Rogan’s podcast, and am genuinely shocked at the comments he has made which I have been finding throughout the course of my research. I was not a listener when this event was unfolding but would have and am upset at his vulgarness and insensitivity. Due to his influential position in the world of MMA, many people could easily be swayed to accept his insider opinion.
One of Rogan’s biggest critics was the popular news source Vice in an article entitled Heroes, Martyrs, And Myths: The Battle For The Rights Of Transgender Athletes.
Other Transgender Athletes In the Media
Is this media persuasion battle just the case for combat sports? Or does this same controversy exist for transgender athletes in the media for other sports as well?
Laurel Hubbard, is a female transgender weightlifting athlete who has made many headlines recently over her competing in the 2019 Commonwealth Games. She is a very interesting athlete for media comparison as her sport of weightlifting is an individual sport, based on strength, similar to that of MMA.
What I have found, is almost identical to that of Fallon Fox. There is a clear divide between those media outlets that are supporting her participation, as she clearly meets the requirements to participate. In comparison to those that discourage her participation, and assimilate her participation to being a “ticking time bomb“(Otto, 2018) of the Common Wealth games.
Once again, the argument comes down to her superficial competitive advantage due to her being born male. A very interesting paper written by Vikki Krane and Katie Barak brings up a really interesting and important point of physical advantages that I had never come to:
“Consider the influence of height in basketball; no one says that the tallest players have an unfair advantage and should be disqualified. Michael Phelps is said to have exceptionally long arms and big feet, a physical advantage linked to his great success as a swimmer. Again, no one considers this unfair”(Krane & Barak, 2012).
Why isn’t the media making such a big deal over Michael Phelps physical advantages? It is fundamentally the same story they are trying to create in the cases of Fallon Fox and Laurel Hubbard. Every athlete is different in their own unique ways, bringing their own skills and talents to their given sport. If it were not for that there would be no such thing as competition. As long as an athlete satisfies the scientifically accepted gender guidelines for there participation, there should be absolutely no reason to report on any gender given advantages. Focus on their skills, abilities, and determination which makes them phenomenal athletes. Unfortunately, our current media “system relies on the idea that bodies are inherently given advantages or disadvantages at birth and to transition physically to another sex means to gain or lose those advantages”(McClaren,2015).
I think George Cunningham (2012) summarizes conflicting views on transgender athletes perfectly, “It is the responsibility of all persons, both LGBT and heterosexual, to provide support to sexual minorities, thereby ensuring that they enjoy the sport to the fullest. After all, fairness and equality are not gay issues or transgender issues—they are people issues”(Cuningham, 2012). Taking it a step further, I believe they have become people issues due to the way the media, such as Fox, CNN, and influencers, frame their stories and opinions due to the political economy of media. “Monitoring and measurement of sports media use for behavioral targeting deserve greater attention and critique”(Corrigan, 2014). With the media continuously focusing on athletes chosen gender rather than their skills as competitors, we will never be able to move forward. Gender is just one small component that makes up an athlete. Athletes chosen gender shouldn’t be headlines, their accomplishments and success should be.
Anonymous. (2011). The Foxification of news; Impartiality. The Economist, 400(8741), N/a.
Bednall, J. (2018, April 08). Commonwealth Games 2018: Transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.foxsports.com.au/commonwealth-games/games-ticking-time-bomb-explodes-as-rival-nation-protests-transgender-weightlifters-presence/news-story/64ec1441eb1ae2a4131ad9db725d3a88
Corrigan, T. F. (2014). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media. doi:10.4324/9780203114711.ch4
Crowder, S. (2013, March 20). Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox shouldn’t be allowed to beat up women. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/03/20/mixed-martial-arts-fighter-fallon-fox-shouldnt-be-allowed-to-beat-up-women.html
(2013) Sexual Prejudice and Sport Media Coverage, Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, 6:1, 121-140,
George Cunningham. (2012) A Multilevel Model for Understanding the Experiences of LGBT Sport Participants. Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education 6:1, pages 5-20.
Pew Research Center. (2011). Beyond red vs. blue: Political typology. Retrieved from http:// people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/Beyond-Red-vs-Blue-The-Political-Typology.pdf
Rogan, J. (2013). Joe Rogan Experience #343 – Bill Burr. [podcast] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC5nu6hdOVM [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].
Krane, V., & Barak, K. (2012). Current Events and Teachable Moments. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 83(4), 38-43.
Martinez, M. (2013, March 10). First transgender MMA fighter goes public. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/09/us/transgender-fighter/index.html