Dana White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship president, has insisted his plans for a 12-fight mixed-martial-arts showcase this month will be safer for participants than staying at home or going to the grocery store during the coronavirus pandemic.
But with the showcase, UFC 249, just 10 days away, it was unclear how White and the UFC could ensure the safety of an entertainment venture that, unlike a grocery store, is not essential.
The closest major hospital, which could be needed if fighters get hurt, is a 40-minute drive away, and a hospital spokeswoman said her employers had not heard a word from the UFC as of Wednesday. The native American tribe that is providing the site — a casino that was shuttered because of the virus — has previously sought help with fights from California state referees, judges and other officials, but the UFC is on its own now as it evades regulators who have told it not to proceed.
And while the UFC has insisted on pressing forward — despite additional objections from combat-sports doctors and public-health officials — some legal experts believe that county and state officials could step in, even though the April 18 event is being staged on sovereign tribal land.
A UFC spokeswoman did not respond to a request from The New York Times to speak with White.
“We are going to take every precaution to make sure everybody is safe,” White said Wednesday morning on ESPN.
Fans will not be allowed to attend, and the UFC will most likely take precautions such as limiting the number of camera operators and people allowed in each fighter’s corner, while moving the announcers away from just outside the cage.
But putting on a full fight card with 24 fighters still requires dozens of personnel, including production staff, referees, judges, medical staff, coaches and UFC officials, which would contravene the president’s guidance that gatherings should be limited to 10 people or fewer.
And White has said the UFC 249 event will be just the beginning — that he plans to stage bouts for at least two months at the same site, as well as others perhaps as early as May on a private island, for fighters from other countries who might have trouble entering the United States.
In holding the fight on tribal land, the UFC is attempting to bypass stay-at-home orders that have been issued in nearly every state, including New York, where the fight was originally scheduled; Nevada, home to the UFC’s headquarters and where it hoped to hold UFC 249 after New York rejected the event; and California.
But while the Tachi Yokut Tribe, which owns the casino and is part of the federally recognized Santa Rosa Indian Community, retains sovereignty over its land, that doesn’t necessarily mean state and county officials are powerless to enforce stay-at-home orders there.
The Tachi Yokut Tribe and the Tachi Palace Casino Resort did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
“Since the 1950s, the State of California has full criminal authority over activities in Indian country,” said Gabe Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California and the managing lawyer at Galanda Broadman, a firm that focuses on tribal legal issues.
Galanda said that while there are grey areas, state and county officials have a stake in criminal matters, as well as some civil ones, on tribal land because of a federal law passed in 1953 — Public Law 280. Various local law enforcement agencies interact with tribes differently, and the stay-at-home executive order from California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is unprecedented.
State and county governments regularly enter tribal land to enforce state and county laws — even laws that are contradicted by tribal laws — and California officials have begun criminally charging people and businesses who violate the stay-at-home order.
Galanda referred to a concept known as “rent a tribe” — whereby businesses set up on tribal land to avoid state regulation — and said California might intervene to stop UFC 249.
“UFC is quite literally renting a tribe for purposes of a single event in contravention of a state declaration of emergency, and that is a bad optic for the tribe and the UFC,” he said. “I don’t think that’s one that the State of California will be allowed to tolerate.”
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David Robinson, sheriff in Kings County, which surrounds the Santa Rosa Indian Community, said in an email that the county follows Public Law 280 in its response to tribal land. He emphasized, however, that this is sovereign land and that “the county’s shelter-in-place order cannot be enforced on tribal land.”
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.