By Ben Fowlkes MMAjunkie.com
At very least, it conjures up a pleasing image. Picture the White House staffer, some highly educated, ambitious go-getter who made his or her parents very proud by securing a job working for the President of the United States, sitting down to consider the case of Nick Diaz.
Picture this staffer being forced to familiarize him or herself with the details of his five-year ban from MMA competition. Picture this person puzzling over the actions of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, trying to decide what position the Obama administration should take on the plight of MMA’s most notorious pot enthusiast. Picture this person rethinking every decision that led to this job and this moment.
A few more (thousand) signatures, and it could become a reality.
It started shortly after NSAC commissioners voted to slap Diaz with that five-year ban, when one person, identified only as “T.C.” from Boaz, Ala., started an online petition on WhiteHouse.gov with the heading: “Lift the NSAC ban from MMA fighter Nick Diaz.”
“Nick Diaz was unfairly banned from being a professional fighter by the Nevada Athletics Commission,” the petition reads. “They ruled based on their personal feelings and beliefs towards the use of medical Marijuana and used their power to deprive Mr.Diaz of being able to make a living.”
The petition was submitted on Sept. 14, and as of this writing, it has garnered 63,065 signatures. In order to meet the threshold for an official White House response, a petition must generate 100,000 signatures in one month’s time, leaving this petition 36,935 signatures short with just a little more than two weeks to go.
Before you write this effort off as a failure, however, you should note that its current signature tally makes it the second-most popular currently open petition in the “Civil Rights and Liberties” category. Just ahead of it, with 95,582 signatures, is a petition to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. In third place, with 11,917 signatures, is a petition to require all public officials to be sworn in on the U.S. Constitution, rather than by placing their hands on the Bible or any other religious text.
In other words, MMA fans’ ardor for Diaz – or at least their outrage over the perceived injustice of his treatment at the hands of the NSAC – seems to rank up right up there with matters ranging from concretely serious to mostly symbolic.
The question is why. And what, exactly, are they really hoping to accomplish?
I put that question to many of the people who claimed to have signed the petition, and what came back was an interesting array of answers. Some were longtime Diaz fans; others were simply longtime marijuana fans (though there does seem to be some overlap among these two groups).
A few said they actually strongly dislike Diaz, but signed his petition anyway to protest what they say as a regulatory injustice. Others said they saw the petition and opted not to sign, some because they thought it was a hopeless cause, and a small minority because they thought Diaz deserved the punishment he received.
“Even though Internet petitions are one step above a ‘Share if you agree’ Facebook post on the slacktivism scale, I still signed it,” Nigel Stanton, who clarified that he was most definitely not a Diaz fan, wrote in an email.
“As someone who has lost people I care about to drunk drivers, I cannot support a repeat DUI offender like him,” Stanton wrote. He went on to express displeasure for Diaz’s fans, as well as the attention the UFC vet gets ahead of more relevant, active fighters.
“You know what I like less than all of that though?” Stanton added. “Gross injustice and abuse of power.”
David Taylor, a fan who watched the hearing unfold, said he saw enough reasonable doubt raised by Diaz’s defense with regards to the one test he failed (as well as the two he passed), that he thought the matter deserved more serious consideration than NSAC commissioners appeared to give it.
At the same time, Taylor admitted, that alone wasn’t enough, since he didn’t do anything when the NSAC attempted to ban Wanderlei Silva for life.
“What really motivated me was watching the streaming video from the hearing and seeing (for the first time) Pat Lundvall et al. engage in what appeared to be a theatrical formality, intended to humiliate Nick Diaz, rather than give a fair hearing,” Taylor wrote in an email. “It took the rise of the cameraphone to expose the deficits in policing in this country, and I think the UFC’s decision to stream these hearings on Fight Pass will be the catalyst for regulatory overhaul.”
Does an online petition actually have the ability to force such an overhaul? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t seem like a small action worth taking for many Diaz supporters.
Of those who claimed to have signed the petition, very few expressed hope that it would result in any meaningful action. Some refused based on that alone, saying they felt it was an empty gesture masquerading as activism. Others concurred with that assessment, but countered that since signing took so little time and effort, they didn’t mind adding their names to the list.
“Ultimately I think it is fairly dumb and will be fruitless, but what the hell,” wrote Zack Weiland. “… Signing the petition was literally the least I could do.”
A quick look into the history of these petitions suggests that, while tangible action isn’t unheard of, neither is it terribly likely.
When the White House first announced in 2011 that it would accept petitions via its “We The People” initiative, the threshold for generating a response was only 5,000 signatures. It soon went to 25,000, and now stands at 100,000 (which apparently wasn’t a high enough threshold to prevent White House staffers from being forced to reply to a petition to build a Death Star).
Some critics have complained that the White House took too long to reply once petitions had reached the required threshold. Others criticized the Obama administration for ignoring popular petitions on sensitive topics, such as the one calling for whistleblower Edward Snowden to be pardoned.
But in a few instances the petitions have led to real change, and on issues such as student-loan debt and increasing public online access to scientific research. In some cases, petitions have led to executive action. In others, the end result has been little more than a statement strongly encouraging congressional action.
When it comes a state issue involving the suspension of an MMA fighter, however, a presidential pardon seems unlikely, to say the least. But that doesn’t make it totally meaningless, according to Lucas Middlebrook, the lawyer who represented Diaz in his NSAC hearing.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a meaningless gesture,” Middlebrook said of the petition. “To see the outpouring of support following this, it really confirms that Nick just didn’t receive an impartial hearing in front of the commission. And really, I think that’s where the outrage comes from.”
As for the next step, Middlebrook said a court battle over Diaz’s suspension is probably on the horizon. An online petition with thousands of signatures isn’t likely to have much impact there, Middlebrook admitted, but it can’t exactly hurt to know that people are paying attention.
“You never know what the effect of grassroots campaigns like this will have,” he said. “But certainly they can only help, if not in the judicial sense, then at least to draw attention to the inequity involved in the process.”