When you're coming off a season where you were named the CFL's most outstanding player and won the Grey Cup, what do you do to stay in shape? If you're Toronto Argonauts' receiver/returner Chad Owens, the answer is apparently "take up mixed martial arts." Hawaii News Now (the online site for several Hawaiian TV stations) reports that Owens not only has been actively training in MMA for the last few months, but is set to compete in a bout at the Destiny Na Koa III event on April 6 in Honolulu. The event's Facebook page also hypes up Owens competing. MMA training in the offseason is becoming more and more common for football players, but competing in an actual fight is much more unusual, and it raises questions about what players should be doing in the offseason. Here's video of Owens training:
Owens obviously has some skill, and it's not that MMA is inherently incredibly dangerous. In its current incarnation, the sport does quite well by many medical standards, and it's far less concerning than football from a concussion standpoint (longer rest periods are mandated after a concussion, and most fighters only compete in a few bouts per year, so there are likely substantially less concussive and subconcussive blows to the brain overall in a calendar year for a fighter than for a football player). Plenty of NFL and CFL players have spoken of the benefits of MMA training, too; Calgary Stampeders' quarterback Drew Tate did so recently. However, it's still a sport with a lot of violence, and there are a lot of serious injuries suffered. Professional fighters obviously accept that risk, but is it a risk that someone who's under contract to play another sport should be able to take?
It's a tricky question to resolve, as just about any activity can be dangerous. Consider this Newsday gallery of athletes who have suffered weird injuries doing everything from carrying deer meat up the stairs (then-Colorado Rockies' shortstop Clint Barmes) to accidentally running themselves over with a car (Valencia's Ever Banega) to falling asleep in a tanning bed (then-Cleveland Indians' outfielder Marty Cordova) to getting his foot stuck while trying to exit a golf cart (then-St. Louis Blues' defencean Erik Johnson). My personal favourite isn't on that list: then-Toronto Blue Jays' DH Glenallen Hill's infamous 1990 injury, where he had a nightmare about spiders, rolled out of bed and crashed through a glass coffee table. The point is, there's no way to completely prevent offseason injuries unless we start encasing players in plastic bubbles, and even that may not work.
Still, competing in a MMA bout seems to be taking offseason risk to a new level. It's not the first time football players have contemplated it, though. In 2011, Baltimore Ravens' lineman Arthur Jones (older brother of current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones) was set to fight a pro MMA bout if the NFL lockout had continued a little longer. That never came to pass, but plenty of former football players have found success in the MMA ranks. Owens' bout marks a rare case where an active pro football player has been in a professional MMA fight, though, although it may not be the first one; former Edmonton Eskimo Adam Braidwood (he of the legal troubles) apparently competed in MMA bouts while he was still in the CFL. MMA training seems reasonable, and it's reportedly brought plenty of benefits for the players who do it in the offseason, but a real bout is a different animal, and one that would seem to have a high risk of potential injuries.
Owens is a much higher-profile player than Braidwood though, and his decision to compete in this MMA event could lead to some interesting discussions on just what offseason activities should and shouldn't be permitted. That's presuming that MMA bouts aren't currently banned in CFL player contracts as they are in some leagues. If they are, then that will lead to an even more interesting discussion about if the Argonauts should step in and risk alienating one of their biggest stars, or let the bout go ahead and hope nothing goes wrong. If offseason MMA bouts aren't currently banned, though, this might lead the league to do just that.