1 Toramar

Cag Essay Competition 2011 Results Realty



Washington, D.C. 20549

FORM 10-K 

(Mark One)

For the fiscal year ended May 29, 2016


For the transition period from                   to

Commission File No. 1-7275



(Exact name of registrant as specified in its charter)


Registrant’s telephone number, including area code (312) 549-5000


Securities registered pursuant to section 12(b) of the Act:

Securities registered pursuant to section 12(g) of the Act: None

Indicate by check mark if the registrant is a well-known seasoned issuer, as defined in Rule 405 of the Securities Act.    Yes  þ    No  ¨

Indicate by check mark if the registrant is not required to file reports pursuant to Section 13 or Section 15(d) of the Act.    Yes  ¨    No  þ

Indicate by check mark whether the registrant (1) has filed all reports required to be filed by Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to file such reports), and (2) has been subject to such filing requirements for the past 90 days.    Yes  þ    No  ¨

Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has submitted electronically and posted on its corporate Website, if any, every Interactive Data File required to be submitted and posted pursuant to Rule 405 of Regulation S-T (232.405 of this chapter) during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to submit and post such files).    Yes  þ    No  ¨

Indicate by check mark if disclosure of delinquent filers pursuant to Item 405 of Regulation S-K (229.405 of this chapter) is not contained herein, and will not be contained, to the best of registrant’s knowledge, in definitive proxy or information statements incorporated by reference in Part III of this Form 10-K or any amendment to this Form 10-K.    þ

Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a large accelerated filer, an accelerated filer, a non-accelerated filer, or a smaller reporting company. See the definitions of “large accelerated filer,” “accelerated filer” and “smaller reporting company” in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act. (Check one):

Large accelerated filer  þ Accelerated filer  ¨

Non-accelerated filer    ¨  (Do not check if a smaller reporting company) Smaller reporting company   ¨

Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a shell company (as defined in Rule 12b-2 of the Act).    Yes  ¨     No  þ

The aggregate market value of the voting common stock of ConAgra Foods, Inc. held by non-affiliates on November 29, 2015 (the last business day of the Registrant’s most recently completed second fiscal quarter) was approximately $18,081,494,300 based upon the closing sale price on the New York Stock Exchange on such date.

At June 26, 2016, 438,720,098 common shares were outstanding.

Documents Incorporated by Reference

Portions of the Registrant’s definitive Proxy Statement for the Registrant’s 2016 Annual Meeting of Stockholders (the “2016 Proxy Statement”) are incorporated by reference into Part III.

Table of Contents



This annual report on Form 10-K contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended. Actual results, performance or achievements could differ materially from those projected in the forward-looking statements as a result of a number of risks, uncertainties, and other factors. For a discussion of important factors that could cause our results, performance, or achievements to differ materially from any future results, performance, or achievements expressed or implied by our forward-looking statements, please refer to Item 1A, Risk Factors and Item 7, Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations below.


General Development of Business

ConAgra Foods, Inc., a Delaware corporation, together with its consolidated subsidiaries (collectively, the "Company," "we," "our" or us"), is one of North America's leading packaged food companies with recognized brands such as Marie Callender's®, Healthy Choice®, Slim Jim®, Hebrew National®, Orville Redenbacher's®, Peter Pan®, Reddi-wip®, PAM®, Snack Pack®,Banquet®, Chef Boyardee®, Egg Beaters®, Hunt's®, and many other ConAgra Foods brands found in grocery, convenience, mass merchandise, and club stores. We also have a strong business-to-business presence, supplying frozen potato and sweet potato products as well as other vegetable, spice, and grain products to a variety of well-known restaurants, foodservice operators, and commercial customers.

We began as a Midwestern flour-milling company and entered other commodity-based businesses throughout our history. We were initially incorporated as a Nebraska corporation in 1919 and were reincorporated as a Delaware corporation in December 1975. Over time, through various acquisitions and divestitures, we changed the make-up of our company and focused on growing our branded food businesses to become the leading food company we are today. Making this shift involved acquiring a number of consumer food brands such as Banquet®, Chef Boyardee®, Marie Callender’s®, and Alexia®. We have divested our Private Brands business, milling business, dehydrated and fresh vegetable operations, a trading and merchandising business, packaged meat and cheese operations, and poultry, beef, and pork businesses, among others. Growing our food businesses has also been fueled by innovation, organic growth of our brands, and expansion into adjacent categories. We are focused on delivering sustainable, profitable growth with strong and improving returns on our invested capital.

In January 2013, we acquired Ralcorp Holdings, Inc. ("Ralcorp"), a manufacturer of private branded food. Since the acquisition of Ralcorp, we focused on addressing executional shortfalls and customer service issues intended to improve operating performance for the Private Brands business. However, after further review of the Private Brands business, we changed our strategic direction and divested the Private Brands business in the third quarter of fiscal 2016.

On November 18, 2015, we announced our plans to separate ConAgra Foods, Inc. into two public companies, Conagra Brands and Lamb Weston. The transaction, expected to be structured as a spinoff of the Lamb Weston business to the shareholders of ConAgra Foods, Inc. in the fall of calendar 2016, is expected to be tax free to the Company and its shareholders. During late fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017, we announced that we had entered into separate agreements to separately sell our Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings business and JM Swank businesses. Each of the transactions is subject to the satisfaction of customary closing conditions and is expected to be completed in the first quarter of fiscal 2017. All of these businesses are part of the Commercial Foods segment.

In fiscal 2016, we also announced the relocation of our corporate headquarters to Chicago, Illinois beginning in the summer of calendar year 2016. We completed the relocation in the first quarter of fiscal 2017. Our efficiency and effectiveness initiatives continue to be implemented with a high degree of customer focus, food safety and quality, and commitment to our people.

Financial Information about Reporting Segments

We report our operations in two reporting segments: Consumer Foods and Commercial Foods. The contributions of each reporting segment to net sales, operating profit, and identifiable assets are set forth in Note 21 “Business Segments and Related Information” to the consolidated financial statements.


Narrative Description of Business

We compete throughout the food industry and focus on adding value for our customers who operate in the retail food, foodservice, and ingredients channels.

Our operations, including our reporting segments, are described below. Our locations, including manufacturing facilities, within each reporting segment, are described in Item 2, Properties.

Consumer Foods

The Consumer Foods reporting segment principally includes branded food sold in various retail channels primarily in North America. Our food products are sold in a variety of categories (meals, entrees, condiments, pasta, sides, snacks, and desserts) in various retail channels across frozen, refrigerated, and shelf-stable temperature classes. Major brands include: ACT II®, Banquet®, Blue Bonnet®, Chef Boyardee®, DAVID®, Egg Beaters®, Healthy Choice®, Hebrew National®, Hunt’s®, Marie Callender’s®, Orville Redenbacher’s®, PAM®, Peter Pan®, Reddi-wip®, Slim Jim®, Snack Pack®, Swiss Miss®, Van Camp’s®, and Wesson®.

Commercial Foods

The Commercial Foods reporting segment includes commercially branded and private label food and ingredients, which are sold primarily to commercial, foodservice, restaurant, food manufacturing, and industrial customers. The segment's primary food items include: frozen potato and sweet potato items and a variety of vegetable, spice, and frozen bakery goods, which are sold under brands such as Lamb Weston® and Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings®.

Unconsolidated Equity Investments

We have a number of unconsolidated equity investments. Our significant equity method investments include a milling business (see "Formation of Ardent Mills" below) and other domestic and international investments that produce and market potato products for retail and foodservice customers.


In May 2015, we acquired Blake's All Natural Foods, a family-owned company specializing in all natural and organic frozen meals, including pot pies, casseroles, pasta dishes and other entrees. This business is included in the Consumer Foods segment.

In July 2014, we acquired TaiMei Potato Industry Limited, a potato processor in China. The purchase included property and equipment associated with making frozen potato products. This business is included in the Commercial Foods segment.

Discontinued Operations

On February 1, 2016, pursuant to a Stock Purchase Agreement, dated as of November 1, 2015, we completed the disposition of our Private Brands operations to TreeHouse Foods, Inc. ("Treehouse"). The Private Brands assets and liabilities have been reclassified as held for sale for all periods presented prior to the divestiture and the results of operations have been classified as discontinued operations for all periods presented.

Formation of Ardent Mills

On May 29, 2014, the Company, Cargill, Incorporated ("Cargill"), and CHS Inc. ("CHS"), completed the formation of Ardent Mills, which combined the North American flour milling operations and related businesses operated through the ConAgra Mills division of ConAgra Foods and the Horizon Milling joint venture of Cargill and CHS. We reflected the operating results of our legacy milling business as discontinued operations for all periods presented. Our equity in the earnings of Ardent Mills is reflected in our continuing operations.



The following comments pertain to all of our reporting segments.

ConAgra Foods is a food company that operates in many sectors of the food industry, with a significant focus on the sale of branded, private branded, and value-added consumer food, as well as foodservice items and ingredients. We use many different raw materials, the bulk of which are commodities. The prices paid for raw materials used in making our food generally reflect factors such as weather, commodity market fluctuations, currency fluctuations, tariffs, and the effects of governmental agricultural programs. Although the prices of raw materials can be expected to fluctuate as a result of these factors, we believe such raw materials to be in adequate supply and generally available from numerous sources. From time to time, we have faced increased costs for many of our significant raw materials, packaging, and energy inputs. We seek to mitigate higher input costs through productivity and pricing initiatives, and the use of derivative instruments used to economically hedge a portion of forecasted future consumption.

We experience intense competition for sales of our food items in our major markets. Our food items compete with widely advertised, well-known, branded food, as well as private branded and customized food items. Some of our competitors are larger and have greater resources than we have. We compete primarily on the basis of quality, value, customer service, brand recognition, and brand loyalty.

Demand for certain of our food items may be influenced by holidays, changes in seasons, or other annual events.

We manufacture primarily for stock and fill our customer orders from finished goods inventories. While at any given time there may be some backlog of orders, such backlog is not material in respect to annual net sales, and the changes of backlog orders from time to time are not significant.

Our trademarks are of material importance to our business and are protected by registration or other means in the United States and most other markets where the related food items are sold. Some of our food items are sold under brands that have been licensed from others. We also actively develop and maintain a portfolio of patents, although no single patent is considered material to the business as a whole. We have proprietary trade secrets, technology, know-how, processes, and other intellectual property rights that are not registered.

Many of our facilities and products we make are subject to various laws and regulations administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal, state, local, and foreign governmental agencies relating to the food safety and quality, sanitation, safety and health matters, and environmental control. We believe that we comply with such laws and regulations in all material respects and that continued compliance with such regulations will not have a material effect upon capital expenditures, earnings, or our competitive position.

Our largest customer, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and its affiliates, accounted for approximately 16%, 16%, and 17% of consolidated net sales for fiscal 2016, 2015, and 2014, respectively.

At May 29, 2016, ConAgra Foods and its subsidiaries had approximately 20,900 employees, primarily in the United States. Approximately 36% of our employees are parties to collective bargaining agreements. Of the employees subject to collective bargaining agreements, approximately 31% are parties to collective bargaining agreements scheduled to expire during fiscal 2017. We believe our relationships with employees and their representative organizations are good.

Research and Development

We employ processes at our principal manufacturing locations that emphasize applied research and technical services directed at product improvement and quality control. In addition, we conduct research activities related to the development of new products. Research and development expense was $66.7 million, $70.4 million, and $86.0 million in fiscal 2016, 2015, and 2014, respectively.










(State or other jurisdiction of

incorporation or organization)


(I.R.S. Employer

Identification No.)



222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, Suite 1300

Chicago, Illinois



(Address of principal executive offices)


(Zip Code)

Title of each class


Name of each exchange on which registered

Common Stock, $5.00 par value


New York Stock Exchange



Item 1



Item 1A

Risk Factors


Item 1B

Unresolved Staff Comments


Item 2



Item 3

Legal Proceedings


Item 4

Mine Safety Disclosures








Item 5

Market for Registrant's Common Equity, Related Stockholder Matters and Issuer Purchases of Equity Securities


Item 6

Selected Financial Data


Item 7

Management's Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations


Item 7A

Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk


Item 8

Financial Statements and Supplementary Data



Consolidated Statements of Operations for the Fiscal Years Ended May 2016, 2015, and 2014



Consolidated Statements of Comprehensive Income (Loss) for the Fiscal Years Ended May 2016, 2015, and 2014



Consolidated Balance Sheets as of May 29, 2016 and May 31, 2015



Consolidated Statements of Common Stockholders' Equity for the Fiscal Years Ended May 2016, 2015, and 2014



Consolidated Statements of Cash Flows for the Fiscal Years Ended May 2016, 2015, and 2014



Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements


Item 9

Changes in and Disagreements with Accountants on Accounting and Financial Disclosure


Item 9A

Controls and Procedures


Item 9B

Other Information





Part III


Item 10

Directors, Executive Officers and Corporate Governance


Item 11

Executive Compensation


Item 12

Security Ownership of Certain Beneficial Owners and Management and Related Stockholder Matters


Item 13

Certain Relationships and Related Transactions, and Director Independence


Item 14

Principal Accountant Fees and Services





Part IV


Item 15

Exhibits and Financial Statement Schedules




Schedule II


Exhibit Index




Title & Capacity




Year First

Appointed an



Sean M. Connolly


President and Chief Executive Officer





John F. Gehring


Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer





Colleen R. Batcheler


Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary





David B. Biegger


Executive Vice President, Chief Supply Chain Officer





Thomas M. McGough


President, Consumer Foods





Charisse Brock


Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer





Andrew G. Ross


Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer





Darren C. Serrao


Chief Growth Officer





Thomas P. Werner


President, Commercial Foods





Robert G. Wise


Senior Vice President, Corporate Controller




Before enrolling in divinity school, I was a cage fighter—not a full-time cage fighter, not a world-famous cage fighter, not even a person for whom cage fighting paid the bills, but a cage fighter nonetheless.  Now, before I go any further, I need to be more careful with my vocabulary or else I’ll risk losing credibility. You see, real cage fighters don’t like to be referred to as such; we prefer the term mixed martial artist. And we prefer that our sport go by the name mixed martial arts or MMA instead of “cage fighting.” There is a long, sordid history behind the sport’s various name changes, and it has everything to do with public perception, influential politicians, and corporate cash (Amy Silverman, Phoenix New Times, February 12, 1998). (But then again, what doesn’t?) Given my history of participation in and love for the sport, my ears perked up last year when MMA arose as a topic of conversation in my theological ethics class.

During the course of our class discussion, one of my divinity school colleagues referred to a recent New York Timesarticle that describes the way a number of churches throughout the United States are turning to mixed martial arts as a way to draw men into their buildings (R. M. Schneiderman, February 1, 2010). Some churches train fighters to compete, while an even greater number of churches host gatherings for men at live fights. On top of this, clothing companies such as Jesus Didn’t Tap and websites like AnointedFighter.com market themselves to a crowd of Christian fight fans—a crowd that might be called a niche if it weren’t already so big.

To some Christians, this new MMA movement represents an expression of real, natural, God-given masculinity. One captain for this team is Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who in the film Fighting Politics says, “I don’t think there is anything purer than two guys in a cage. [. . .] As a pastor and as a Bible teacher, I think that God made men masculine. [. . .] Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion. [. . .] That’s just the way men are made.”

And yet, not all Christians are so keen to adopt MMA as a spiritual discipline. Many people are repulsed by Driscoll’s comments yet respond to his sophomorism in kind. Take for example, the responses I heard from some fellow students during the course of our class conversation. “That’s the church of the rich,” one person stated from behind his Apple laptop. Not to be outdone in terms of ersatz answers, another student chimed in, “I’d say it’s the church of the bored.” That is the way these conversations tend to go—like two pugilists past their prime, both sides dance around one another, trading harmless jabs and failing to deliver a decisive blow.

In this essay, I hope to take a different tack altogether. I do not intend to make a case for MMA Christianity but neither do I seek to dismiss its representatives as unworthy dialogue partners. I do not think that mixed martial artists must be transformed into good Christian hipsters before they can teach us something about masculinity. Rather, I believe that MMA can make a substantial contribution to the conversation on masculinity. Therefore, in what follows I am going to consider MMA on its own terms; I am going to take its self-descriptions at face value. I am—in all charity—going to attempt a sympathetic reading of MMA.

In doing so, moreover, I will engage selections from The Confessions of Saint Augustine in order to ground my sympathetic reading of MMA theologically. By putting MMA in conversation with the Bishop of Hippo, I hope it will become clear that the sport does not shore up the particular notion of masculinity that Driscoll and others like him imagine it does.

The Fighter’s Body

According to MMA fans, masculinity is deeply connected to the body. For example, in the video clip, Driscoll makes disparaging remarks about the “fat guys” who sit on the sidelines and critique the sport. The implication, of course, is that the fit guys in the cage are the real men; true masculinity is revealed in the fighter’s body. A simple glimpse of a boxer or a wrestler—these guys are extraordinary physical specimens—reveals thick necks, tree trunk legs, v-shaped backs, even strong jaw lines. No doubt about it, so the argument goes, these are the archetypes to which all men ought to conform.

Furthermore, this emphasis on the relation between masculinity and embodiment seems to be a Christian one. After all, flesh and blood are central to our faith.

And yet, for all of MMA Christianity’s insistence on the centrality of the body for adequate conceptions of masculinity, my experience as a fighter taught me something entirely different. You see, far from acknowledging myself as a living body, success in MMA required that I ignore this fact, that I (somehow!) try to forget that I am a body.

It started in training. I had dozens of training partners who never competed. Their only job was to beat me up as I prepared for the fight. I would spar for a nonstop, ten-minute round, where every minute, a fresh, rested training partner would come in and lay a beating on me. Though exhausted, I would try to give one back. The point, of course, was that when fight night came, the real thing would actually be easier than the hell I had put myself through at practice. And after each training session, far from feeling angry with the people who had just pummeled me, I sincerely thanked them for helping me train, for making me a better fighter.

What was happening along the way, however, was nothing less than being schooled in how to ignore my body. Perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirt slogans that bark with false bravado, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” That was my attitude toward training: ignore the pain, redefine it, explain it away—it’s not real, it’s for my own good, it’s not a message from my body; it is just something in my “mind” (whatever that means).

A similar thing would happen on the night of the fight. The adrenaline dump that you get before a fight is incredible. Even after having fought for years, including for a number of large promotions, on fight night the same thing always happened: I got jittery, and my jaw would chatter. When that adrenaline first hit me, I found it difficult to make a tight fist or take a deep breath—both of which are somewhat important for a fighter to do. Early in my career, I came to dread this feeling before the fight. But over time, I learned how to deal with my hormones, how to talk myself out of the message they were trying to send me.

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!

After the fight, my whole body ached. If it were a quick fight, I would usually feel better in a few days. But if the fight lasted all five rounds, it would be a good week before I felt like getting out of bed. To cope with the pain, I would drink at night—not a lot, just enough to take some of the sting out. On the really bad days, I would pop a few pain pills—again not a ton, just enough to mute some of the pain.

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

And now it seems appropriate to ask what account of masculinity requires a man to forget his body? The answer can only be that it is not a Christian masculinity but a Manichean masculinity. The Manichees, a sect founded in the third century by Mani and depicted by Augustine in his Confessions as a popular movement during the mid-fourth century, believed that this world was a fusion of divine spirit and evil matter. By this account, it was only through the spirit’s escape from the vile material realm that it was able to reach the transcendent world. Augustine describes his time among the Manichees like so:

I fell among a set of proud madmen, exceedingly carnal and talkative people in whose mouths were diabolical snares and a sticky mess compounded by mixing the syllables of your name, and the names of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who is our Paraclete and Consoler. These names were never far from their mouths, but amounted to no more than sound and the clacking of tongues, for their hearts were empty of the truth.”[1]

Having joined their ranks, Augustine soon subscribed to a variety of otherworldly philosophies:

I derided your holy servants and prophets. Even as I laughed at them I deserved to be laughed at by you, for gradually, little by little, I was being lured into such absurdities as the belief that a fig wept when plucked, and its mother tree too wept milky tears. Then, I was told, if one of the saints ate the fig, it would be absorbed by his digestive system and then when he belched or groaned in prayer he would spew out angels, or even particles of God [. . .] I believed, poor wretch, that it was accordingly a higher duty to show mercy to the fruits of the earth than to human beings.”[2]

Now if that didn’t make much sense to you—and it shouldn’t—Augustine’s experience as a Manichee can be described as follows: after falling in with a crowd whose hyperspirituality caused them to paradoxically become “exceedingly carnal,” Augustine developed a disregard for the human creature that was ultimately evidenced in some rather absurd practices. Or again, as a result of accepting a false description of the human body—one that mistakenly taught the separation of human spirit and flesh rather than their interwoven and mutually constitutive nature—Augustine also came to adopt a false way of being in the world. Thus, both his flesh and spirit suffered, or in his own words, he became “misshapen.” This description rings as true of some twenty-first-century hypermasculine Christianists as it did of fourth-century Manichaeism.

Any Christian account of masculinity must take our embodiment seriously. Violence will result whenever we forget that God created us as flesh and blood, that God came to earth in flesh and blood, and that the flesh and blood of Jesus is now present to the world in the church’s sacraments.

Self-Sufficient Masculinity or Utterly Dependent Homoeroticism?

In the film Fighting Politics, Mark Driscoll describes MMA as something “purer [. . .] no bats, no sticks, no help, no team.” It is important to note what is going on in this description of the sport, because as with all interpretations, the description reveals as much about the subject as it does about the object being described. To put it plainly: Driscoll is at least mistaken (if not willfully and, therefore, culpably, incorrect) in his assessment that there is “no help” and “no team” in the sport of mixed martial arts.

In addition to fight preparation, my teammates were critical components of my success during the actual fight. On fight night, one of my most important teammates was my cut man. This was the guy who, between rounds, tried to get the cuts on my face to stop bleeding into my eyes. Being able to see my opponent was absolutely critical, and for that, I needed my teammate, a cut man. Moreover, I would have been no good without my coach. He was a skilled veteran who helped to make subtle corrections to my strategy during a fight, and from his privileged angle, he offered a vantage point on things that I could not see. But even my cut man and coach were not enough; as a fighter, I also depended on my water boy, the teammate who assumed the rather unenviable tasks of holding my protective cup before the fight and rinsing off my mouth guard between rounds. Without any one of these teammates, there is no way I would have stepped foot into a cage.

Now, if Driscoll has seen even one fight, as he claims, surely he would have noticed these people—trainer, coach, cut man, and water boy. They are hard to miss. So why doesn’t Driscoll see them? Why does he insist that the fighter has “no help”? Why is his description of MMA so clearly deficient? Quite simply, he hasn’t been trained to see these other people. He has been trained to see two guys beating each other up, and so that’s what he sees.

And perhaps this is the main reason that I bristle when Driscoll begins to opine on MMA, because he is the type of fan that fighters despise. If you go to any live event, you will know why: the fans are there for blood. Well, more accurately, they are there to get drunk, whistle at ring-card girls, and bullshit about why they would fight if some circumstance outside of their control were different. But mainly, they are there to see blood. If you can count on fans yelling anything during a fight, it is the cry, “Elbow him! Elbow him!” An elbow that is delivered properly can be much more destructive than a fist. One well-timed elbow can end a fight—or a career. By their cries, many fans make it clear that they are there for one reason: to see someone get hurt.

Fighters regard these types of fans as—to borrow a term from the armed services—chickenhawks. A chickenhawk is a person who endorses war with all the belligerent bellowing of a drill sergeant, yet when the time comes to enlist, they are nowhere to be seen. So the MMA churches and their MMA pastors can rail all they want against the “fat, lazy” men who critique MMA, but I, as a former fighter, have a great deal more respect for the person who is willing to interrogate my sport for the well-being of its participants than one who, from an equally distanced vantage point, deceives himself into thinking that he is a fighter and speaks so self-assuredly about what MMA is.

There is something even more obviously deficient about Driscoll’s description of MMA and the infatuation with this phenomenon among some Christian, male leaders. Take a look at the following images.

First of all, here is one popular style of shorts that are worn for training and competition:

Here are shorts on a fighter:

And the following images are of common positions that fighters find themselves in, the full guard, full mount, and two images of the back mount:

As these images illustrate—tight shorts, bare chests, and men jostling with legs and limbs intertwined—MMA is extremely intimate, and the people who participate in the sport must be comfortable in a variety of compromising physical positions. This is not to suggest that MMA is necessarily a site for men to practice their otherwise latent homoeroticism, but certainly, its practitioners must be willing to risk discovering such motivations in themselves through participation in the sport. And if not that, then fighters must be willing to accept the fact that other people may describe it as such. Thus, fighters must possess a certain degree of security with their own sexual identity, courage to allow that identity to be interrogated by the inherently intimate nature of the sport, and fortitude to accept the barbs and jabs of homophobic onlookers. Put differently, this is not the sport that Driscoll should want to appeal to for creating the type of man he is after—MMA requires its participants to get far too comfortable touching other men. His inability to see anything besides the pummeling bespeaks an inadequate character formation.

The cruel detachment with which Driscoll and other Christian MMA fans observe the sport is reminiscent of Augustine’s experience at the theater in Carthage:

I was held spellbound by theatrical shows full of images that mirrored my own wretched plight and further fueled the fire within me. Why is it that one likes being moved to grief at the sight of sad or tragic events on stage, when one would be unwilling to suffer the same things oneself?

[. . . .] At that time I was truly miserable, for I loved feeling sad and sought out whatever could cause me sadness. When the theme of a play dealt with other people’s tragedies—false and theatrical tragedies—it would please and attract me more powerfully the more it moved me to tears. [. . .] I had no desire to undergo myself the woes I liked to watch. It was simply that when I listened to such doleful tales being told they enabled me superficially to scrape away at my itching self, with the result that these raking nails raised an inflamed swelling, and drew stinking discharge from a festering wound. Was that life I led any life at all, O my God?[3]

Some male Christian leaders may think that by hollering about mixed martial arts, they are proffering a form of masculinity that is both more authentically Christian and more interesting than the milquetoast culture of contemporary evangelicalism. And yet, like Augustine at the theater, these men are not calling their followers into reality, but escapism. Their brand of masculinity amounts to nothing more than voyeurism, projection, and self-help therapy. Far from bold, the MMA Christian’s posturing comes off as frightened.

Back in the Cockpit

In the New York Times article, Ryan Dobson, son of evangelist James Dobson, weighs in on the value of MMA for Christian men: “The man should be the overall leader of the household [. . . .] We’ve raised a generation of little boys.”

In an interview with John Piper’s organization, desiringGod, Driscoll speaks in a similar vein, saying,

Guys like David are well known for their ability to slaughter other men. [. . .] These guys were heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose-dudes. [. . .] Young men get married, make money, make babies, build companies, buy real estate; they’re going to make the culture of the future. If you get the young men, you win the war—you get everything. [. . .] If you don’t get the young men, you get nothing.”

This is the punch line. This is the work that Driscoll and Dobson think MMA does for their brand of Christian masculinity—it provides the necessary control. It places men back in the driver’s seat of a world that has been careening out of control ever since we allowed our women to remove their head coverings in defiance of an explicit scriptural command.

How else are we to understand the connection between Driscoll’s comments on violent masculinity and church growth, which flow immediately—almost as a stream of consciousness—from one to the other? This is about controlling outcomes, measuring church effectiveness as defined by bodies in pews, and building the church the same way that billionaires build skyscrapers. What work does MMA do for Driscoll? It keeps him in control—the ruler of his home and the celebrity pastor. (By the way, go back to the beginning of that clip, and make a list of the men that Driscoll names. He left one man off the list . . . .)

But is MMA about being in control? And if not, can it do the work that Driscoll thinks it does?

Certainly it appears that the point of the contest is to dominate your opponent, however, on a closer inspection we can vividly see that the fighter emerges as anything but in control.

As I have already mentioned, becoming a fighter meant being a part of a larger, more organized group of fighters. But some people cannot grasp this. Every once in a while, there is a group of wannabes that shows up on fight night with homemade T-shirts, and a ridiculous team name—“The Buttkicker Squad,” or something equally amateurish. Fight training for these guys consists of watching Jean Claude Van Damme reruns and scrapping in their parents’ basements. One by one, without fail, they get carried out on stretchers, never to be seen or heard from again. Why? Because they thought they were in control. The successful fighters are the ones who are able to submit to the wisdom of a knowledgeable coach and a reputable team. They are willing to be trained.

As a fighter, I relied on my manager to communicate with promoters and to negotiate my pay. I relied on dieticians to tell me when to eat, when to drink, and how long to sit in the sauna on weigh-in days. I relied on fans to buy tickets and cheer for me, so I could prove my worth to promoters and make my way into larger promotions. I depended on sponsors to come through with a few extra dollars that might cover the costs of my protein shakes. I relied on doctors to fix me when I got hurt, and ultimately to beg me—after suffering my sixth serious concussion and enduring months of temporary paralysis on the left side of my body—to stop this nonsense while I still had some brain left.

The Fighter’s deep dependence on others reveals that MMA is not the grand display of masculine domination that some Christian men want it to be. But I do not expect these men to come to this realization easily; letting go of control can be traumatic.  It would take nothing less than a miracle, a new birth, an entirely repentant turn for Driscoll and other Christian leaders to see the folly of their lust for power and to confess this folly to their peers, admiring worshipers, and most frighteningly, themselves. It would be not at all dissimilar from the way that Augustine describes his own conversion:

The things that had been my cronies of long standing, still held me back, plucking softly at my garment of flesh and murmuring in my ear, “Do you mean to get rid of us? Shall we never be your companions again after that moment? Never, never again?” [. . .] I could not bring myself to tear free and shake them off and leap across to that place whither I was summoned, while aggressive habit still taunted me: “Do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?”[4]

But of course, Augustine does turn toward the God who is revealed in the crucified Christ, a Christ who has been completely humiliated and dominated by his Roman executioners, and in that turning, Augustine is freed from his addiction to control. The first words of Book IX of Confessions burst forth with new life: “O Lord, I am your servant.”[5]

Repentance is never impossible for those who genuinely seek the Lord, because, quite simply, repentance is not an act of man but of God. Therefore, no matter how deeply deformed by violence a person has become, no matter how addicted to worldly power, no matter how enslaved by concepts of manhood that violate the very body of Christ—God is still greater than all these sins. A rebuke is an invitation to surrender to God and a promise that God will transform even the vilest misogynist. As Augustine says, “By your sheer grace and mercy you melted my sins away like ice. Is there anyone who can take stock of his own weakness and still dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own efforts?”[6]

Promise Breakers

I have tried to give an account of masculinity and mixed martial arts that doesn’t exclude the sport’s enthusiasts from dialogue, and that is because I think MMA has picked up on something good with its insistence on embodied masculinity, its description of intimate masculinity that borders on homoeroticism, and its exemplification of the fighter’s utter dependence on his gym and complete lack of control over outcomes.

And yet, a curious futility emerges when the practice of MMA is observed: the body is rejected, some fighters and fans do not interpret intimacy in the sport, and the observation that the fighter is not in control seems lost on almost everyone involved. Just like the state that defines peace by waging  perpetual warfare, freedom by separating and isolating neighbors, and equality by ignoring obvious disparities, MMA is powerless to produce what it promises, because it does not possess the proper means to bring it about.

Of course, there is no reason to expect that observing MMA’s powerlessness to develop Christian disciples will dissuade some churches from bundling so-called men’s ministry with MMA. The sport is hot right now, and MMA is an effective “outreach” tool, so it will remain in churches for the foreseeable future. Idols may be powerless to form faithful Christians, but as fund-raisers and recruitment tools, they are effective as hell. This is what happens when, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, the church tries to “make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it cannot be intelligible without the Gospel.”[7]

Faced with the growing popularity of the Christian MMA movement, the church must return to its source of life and proclaim a masculinity rooted in the self-giving and Other-receiving perichoresis of the Trinity[8] and revealed in the flesh and blood of the God-Man whose strength is made perfect in kenotic weakness. Only here, I believe, can the church’s men find courage to resist therapeutic misogyny and church-growth schemes; only here can we begin to become true disciples who, with Augustine, joyfully proclaim, “You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”[9]

[1] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York, NY: Random, 1997), 42.

[2] Ibid, 50.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, 38–39.

[4] Ibid., 166.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Hauerwas, “Preaching As Though We Had Enemies,” First Things, May 1995, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/09/003-preaching-as-though-we-had-enemies–9.

[8] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 128.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 222.

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About the Author

Matt Morin
Matthew Morin worships with Milwaukee Mennonite Church. As a former lightweight champion and current father of two, he can assure you that cage fighters are absolute pansies compared to people who change diapers, pull all-nighters with sick children, and climb mountains of dirty laundry. His other reflections on churches and MMA can be found in his 2011 The Other Journal essay “The Confessions of a Cage Fighter.”

augustineBishop of Hippomark driscollMasculinityMen's MinistryMixed Martial ArtsMMAviolence

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