The sport of Mixed Martial Arts remains controversial. Once the province of bare-knuckled underground fights, MMA has evolved into a lucrative and increasingly mainstream sport.
Except in New York. In New York, MMA has been banned since 1997, and is remains the only state in the country to do so. Two decades ago, MMA was a different sport -- with more blood and fewer safeguards. The ban, however, does not encompass amateur MMA, and bouts are regularly held throughout the state with scant oversight or protection for fighters (or spectators). An amateur MMA fighter can enter the ring without being examined or tested for illnesses (including blood-borne illnesses such as hepatitis C or HIV) or for recent concussion injuries. A fighter may be injured in New York and then travel to another state and fight without a record of the nature or extent of the injuries sustained in New York. This is particularly alarming given what we now know about concussions and the potentially dire consequences of successive trauma. These risks have been allowed to fester for years because of a gap in the law. The risk does not stop at the doorstep of New York: an amateur MMA fighter who is injured or exposed to an illness in New York may be putting others at risk by traveling to another state.
For each of the past six years, and despite the risks that are presented by the gap within 1997 ban, legislation has been proposed to legalize professional MMA and to protect amateur MMA fighters. The legislation, however, has never passed. In fact, the legislation has never made it to a vote in New York’s Assembly. It was of no consequence whether the proposed legislation passed in New York’s Senate with bipartisan support. Each year, the bills were unraveled. Some opined it was because of union politics (the Culinary Worker’ union is reportedly a staunch opponent due to a long-simmering disagreement with the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship) or the heavy hand of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (now indicted on federal corruption charges). The spectacle of Albany politics has surpassed any spectacle in the octagon, or the “cage” where MMA bouts are fought.
This year, and despite what some hoped was a breath of fresh air in Albany, the proposed legislation fared no better. Under new Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie, the most recent legislation was amended and addressed many of the concerns voiced by the opponents of MMA. For the first time, professional and amateur MMA would be placed under the jurisdiction of the New York State Athletic Commission and amateur fights would be sanctioned by third-party organizations. The amended legislation also contained comprehensive insurance requirements, including mandatory $50,000 in medical coverage for fighters and one million coverage for life-threatening brain injuries. It included a licensing plan for professional and amateur fighters and managers, among others involved in the sport. It authorized a tax on ticket sales and broadcasts (including broadcasts over the internet). The amended legislation, too, never reached a vote in New York’s Assembly.
After last week’s cliffhanger legislative session in Albany, MMA supporters were left feeling sucker punched again. The legislative session addressed important issues, such as extending rent regulations and protecting the health and welfare of New York’s nail salon workers. Those achievements are commendable. But there was no such protection or even a vote in the Assembly for MMA athletes. And that is unconscionable. Particularly when Albany mustered a vote on whether the wood frog should be New York’s official state amphibian before the 2105 session closed. New York to do no less for its MMA community. Perhaps next year.
Carla Varriale is a litigator with Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, LLP, who has represented Major League Baseball teams and players, minor league teams and clients in the recreation and sports industries. Carla writes and lectures on various issues of interest to sports, recreation and entertainment venues, including water parks and amusement parks. She has appeared as a legal commentator on Court TV Radio and FoxNews’ Cases and Cops.