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ESPN backs UFC, Dana White over reporter in Gina Carano controversy

Updated February 16, 2021 - 7:59 pm

When in doubt — no matter how shameful the situation — ESPN will always protect its brand.

It happened again this week in the case of Ariel Helwani, who covers MMA for the network. ESPN chose a corporate partner over fully doing the right thing. Hardly shocking.

First, the background: Gina Carano is the actor and former MMA fighter who lost her job on the television series “The Mandalorian” after sharing a social media post in which she compared being criticized for political views in America today to the treatment of Jews during Nazi Germany.

Helwani, who is Jewish, criticized Carano in an Instagram video.

“This last post essentially comparing being a Republican in America or having a certain political view to being a Jew in Nazi Germany during World War II is asinine,” he said. “It is an absolutely crazy comparison to make.”

Dana White speaks

Enter, then, UFC president Dana White.

Who, when asked about the Carano situation, said: “Leave Gina alone. Listen, we make mistakes. We all make mistakes. For everybody to go in on her — I love how Ariel Helwani made it all about him. It was all about him. Such a douche.”

Know that ESPN owns exclusive rights to broadcast UFC’s pay-per-view events. And that until several of Helwani’s high-profile colleagues — past and present — publicly stood behind him, ESPN didn’t offer comment.

And when it did, this is how short it fell: “Ariel is a valued colleague and an exceptional MMA reporter. His record speaks for itself.”

The statement didn’t mention White. I’m not even sure you can refer to it as one of support. Helwani has nearly 1 million Twitter followers and is the country’s preeminent MMA reporter. It goes without saying he’s valued.

That’s like ESPN releasing a statement that says NBA expert Adrian Wojnarowski breaks a lot of stories.

This isn’t even about White, who unnecessarily included Helwani when speaking on Carano. But the UFC boss and MMA reporter have clashed for years, and White making statements that are deemed controversial is hardly news. It’s probably the least surprising thing about the entire narrative.

ESPN, on the other hand, had the opportunity to truly stand behind one of it own by calling out White.

To make it known that such a description was both wrong and in no way represented the network. To choose the correct side.

But this is the proverbial line in an Octagon that ESPN won’t cross with a company in which it has a $1.5 billion rights partnership. It’s wrong and yet so incredibly predictable.

‘A little confused’

Carano, who never fought in the UFC and had a 7-1 MMA fight record from 2006 to 2009, hasn’t responded beyond announcing that she is working on a new movie project with The Daily Wire. White declined comment through a UFC spokesperson.

Helwani told “Cofield and Co.” on ESPN Radio Las Vegas, “I have not been shy about how I feel about Gina — if there ever was a legitimate, independent Hall of Fame for MMA, I think she would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer for what she did and the doors she opened. I’ve always held her in high regard. I still think she is a kindhearted person.

“I think maybe she’s a little confused or just made a horrible analogy that I hope she feels bad about. To make a comparison to whatever is going on in today’s world in terms of having different (political) opinions to the Holocaust is disgusting. I’d like to believe she just made a horrible mistake.”

I’d like to believe ESPN would have been much stronger in support of Helwani by finally choosing a side. The right one.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.