It’s been nearly two weeks since Jorge Masvidal strutted down a concourse at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Masvidal, who later that night would get knocked out by Kamaru Usman in the main event of UFC 261, wore a white tee shirt under a fur coat. Written on that shirt in red ink was the phrase “#FreeAlexisVila.”
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) April 25, 2021
If you think you’ve heard the name Alexis Vila before, you have. A Florida judge sentenced the former Cuban Olympic wrestler to 15 years in prison for the role he played in the 2011 kidnapping, torture and murder of Camilo Salazar. Vila also fought for World Series of Fighting, Titan FC, Bellator and other promotions during an MMA career that ran from 2007 through 2016.
While Masvidal was walking into the arena in Jacksonville ahead of his matchup opposite Usman, he looked at the ESPN camera and said, “Alexis, I love you.”
MMA media did not ask Masvidal about the shirt at the event, after the event, nor during an extended video interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, where Masvidal once again wore the aforementioned shirt. The UFC, ESPN and the MMA media let it slide.
That didn’t sit well with me, and it continues to trouble me.
The MMA media should have addressed Masvidal. If an athlete wears a shirt with a hashtag on it, they are sending a message. If a journalist or media member sees that, the first question they should ask themselves is what does it mean. The second individual to be asked about the hashtag should have been Masvidal.
For a journalist to not ask Masvidal about the shirt is a dereliction of duty on two fronts. The first is Masvidal is sending a message and with that, the expectation should be that he wants to be asked about it. The second failure is to the audience, they might be curious what “#FreeAlexisVila” means.
The UFC should have researched the hashtag and addressed it publicly. I would venture a company like the UFC does not want one of its independent contractors tying it to calling for the release of a man involved in a kidnapping and brutal murder.
ESPN should have addressed Masvidal’s “#FreeAlexisVila” shirt because the network was the one who gave Masvidal — knowingly or unknowingly — the platform to stump for Vila’s release on its airwaves.
Lastly, Masvidal should publicly address the statement he made with the shirt. If the man who owns the BMF title can wear a shirt calling for Vila’s release, he can surely openly discuss why he believes Vila should be set free from his 15-year-sentence. To wear the shirt and not speak unbidden about the hashtag seems like a copout from Masvidal.
I’m sure someone will misread this and think it’s about “cancelling” Masvidal or scolding the UFC, ESPN and the MMA media. That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about accountability of all parties involved. That no one outside of three websites (Bloody Elbow, Yahoo and Sportskeeda) addressed the hashtag is a failure. That the UFC and ESPN have not talked about the topic is a failure. That Masvidal, the man who wore the shirt and made sure ESPN cameras saw it, has not spoken about his support for Vila and why he believes Vila should be free is a failure.
Bloody Elbow reached out to UFC, ESPN and Masvidal’s management team. No one responded to our inquiries prior to publication.
If someone offers support for a person convicted for involvement in a horrific murder and kidnapping, that person should be own and explain their stance. They should be held accountable. The media, UFC and ESPN can and should do so with Masvidal.
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