by Tom Hamlin – MMAWeekly.com
The New York State Assembly’s Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development Committee begins its session on Tuesday, and among several pieces of legislature up for vote is bill 1-11458-A, designed to regulate the sport of MMA in New York.
Originally presented during the committee’s June meeting, the bill’s vote was postponed to January when several committee members attempted to change their initial votes. On Nov. 12, the bill’s sponsor, committee chairman Steve Englebright, held an informal roundtable for legislators and interested members of the public. Among those in attendance was Marc Ratner, the UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, who spoke to attendees about the sport’s regulation.
The bill is not on the committee’s agenda this week, but could be voted on as early as next week. Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a democratic member of the committee who represents the 109th district of New York, opposes the legislation and recently spoke to MMAWeekly.com about his feelings on the sport and attempts to bring it to the Empire State.
MMAWeekly.com: Can you tell me about your feelings on the current bill and about mixed martial arts in general?
Reilly: My feeling about the bill is that it’s a flawed piece of legislation. And my feeling about mixed martial arts is that there are many problems with it. It really is a glorification of brutality and violence. Many people believe that violence in the media, or any portrayal of violence, or violence itself as I think happens in mixed martial arts, in fact, makes people immune to violence and in fact promotes violence.
In New York State, we pass a lot of laws to stop violence, especially among young people in schools, but domestic violence (as well). I think that this basically is a glorification of violence, but it certainly promotes violence. In itself, I think it’s a very brutal sport that creates, obviously, physical harm to the participants, and I don’t think there’s any other sport who’s purpose is to harm your opponent. But we know that in mixed martial arts, that, in fact, is one of the purposes.
I think economically, it’s a very poor thing for New York State, that just the economics of it would not be beneficial to our state. It just draws money out of the state. I compare it to gambling and what happens in gambling. If you take Atlantic City for example, you have casinos that are going broke, surrounded by slums. If you look at Las Vegas, basically, the same thing is happening, where 20 months in a row gambling revenue has decreased, and Las Vegas and the growth there has created many slum areas in Las Vegas.
MMAWeekly.com: Do you believe the idea that it’s bringing in tax revenue to the state is erroneous?
Reilly: No, I think it does, but I think if you had a gate – the numbers that people would use here – the live gate of 20,000 people. And where I live, next to the city of Albany, we have an arena that seats 19,000. If you had that, and the tickets averaged 200 dollars – which is not unreasonable, and are in fact Ultimate Fighting projections, not mine – then it would be a gate of 4 million dollars and they might project a half a million to the local economy. But at the same time, it would suck out of our local economy a tremendous amount of money. In New York State, we have a budget deficit that we’re trying to address now of almost 15 billion dollars. And I don’t think that Ultimate Fighting adds to our economy… I think it detracts from our economy.
MMAWeekly.com: How would it suck money out of the economy?
Reilly: Ultimate Fighting, that franchise is owned by interests in Las Vegas. If you have a gate in the city of Albany, the live gate would be 4 million dollars. There’s revenue that would stay here, lets us say a half a million. But three and a half million would go right out of our economy and out of our state to Vegas, and I think that’s harmful to our local economy. It doesn’t generate money on a long-time basis. It’s what I call a “false economy.” There’s many examples of this. It’s a stretch from Ultimate Fighting, of course, but our whole problem with our financial industry and whatever. Or gambling, which I think is a better analogy. I think the projections of revenue coming in, you have to look at a bigger picture, and the bigger picture is not so beneficial. And of course, the real money in sports, which isn’t addressed, is the hundreds of millions of dollars taken in by television, especially pay per view.
MMAWeekly.com: When did you first come to this conclusion about mixed martial arts? It was first banned by legislators in 1997.
Reilly: My exposure to it is relatively new, and I’ve only been in office four years, so I was not in office when it was done. A year ago, unknown to almost every legislator, we in fact passed legislation that would legalize it in the assembly – we have two houses, assembly and the Senate. It passed unanimously in the assembly. But in fact, most of us didn’t even know what we were passing because the legislation, as you read it, appeared to be just a technical change in some regulatory language of the state athletic commission. So I found that really (to be an) under the table type of way of getting that legalized. I was unaware of it then. (The new bill) came up for consideration, and it goes through a committee. The committee that it was assigned to was tourism. And I had Jeff Blatnick come in to see me, and he’s a very respectful, articulate person. I said, “I don’t know if I can support this, Jeff.” When it came up for a vote in the committee, I spoke against it without any intention to sway any other votes, but in fact, my colleagues, who were not very conversant with Ultimate Fighting, voted it down. And I became what I call the “accidental opposition.” It’s not my huge issue in my life.
Of course, we have advocates in New York, and people that want it here, but the vast majority of people are unaware of it, because their only exposure would be flipping through their TV channels, and most come to it and flip it off. I have on a regular basis had my constituents come up to me and say, “You’re doing the right thing. Keep this out, this is wrong.” The vast majority of my constituents are opposed to it, because they think it’s brutal. I find it very offensive, and even more with women than men – if that’s sexist, so be it – to see a woman knee another woman in the stomach, to see someone grab another person’s head and knee them in the head. To see a guy prone on the ground – and I watched this last night, in fact – and then get beat in the head five or six times with the fist. It’s not something that I think we want to show to people. This is the type of society we have.
MMAWeekly.com: How do you feel about boxing?
Reilly: No one’s impressed by this, but I was a running coach for 26 years, and I’ve coached national champions in a few countries. I compare Ultimate Fighting to amateur boxing and pro boxing. And I’ve always been a boxing fan, and grew up admiring people like Rocky Marciano or Sugar Ray Robinson. But I see the brutality of professional boxing now, and the skill of amateur boxing. In amateur boxing, one emphasizes skill, and the other, a much more brutal type of activity, and much more harm to the individual boxers. What I’ve seen of mixed martial arts, and the way they’ve advocated for it in New York State, tells me that without very careful consideration and regulation, which we’re not prepared to do right now, we would be down the road of the sordid history of boxing, which I think you would have a hard time defending. I still think amateur boxing is a great sport. I’ve always been a fan of all boxing, but if I had my druthers, I would change professional boxing into amateur boxing.
MMAWeekly.com: Is that to say that if mixed martial artists put on headgear, outlawed certain things like elbows on the ground, certain types of techniques, you might be more open to it?
MMAWeekly.com: Have you seen any change in sentiment since the information meeting held by Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development chairman Steve Englebrecht?
Reilly: Well, there was no one there to change the sentiment. There were only four legislators there. Two, I think, opposed to it, and I believe chairman Englebrecht is neutral, that’s what he’s told me, and Jonathan Bing, who would be a person in favor of it… that’s the impression I got. Everyone else was just an advocate for it.
I was invited in a backwards way. I live 150 miles from New York City. I received a faxed letter from the chairman to Cablevision that was two weeks old; I received it the day before the meeting. So members of the committee were not invited. So what kind of a meeting was that? That’s the kind of process that I’ve found completely flawed in this whole process. I became more against it for a number of reasons. For example, I found the commissioner of our state athletic commission, a woman, completely ill informed about the rules. For example, she said, “well, you couldn’t elbow somebody” – I think there’s a famous fight, I’ve never seen it, where some fellow with a cauliflower ear is elbowed in the ear…
MMAWeekly.com: It was a punch to the ear…
Reilly: …and there was puss and blood that goes all over. One of our members had seen that, and I guess it really turns people off. Well, she asked him about it, and the commissioner says, ‘oh, you can’t elbow according to these rules.’ Now this is our commissioner, who is supposed to regulate this sport. Then, she said there’s 500 illegal fights in New York State. She later – when I challenged her on that – modified that, what I consider a ridiculous statement, but I think that tells us that we’re not in a position to legalize this sport. I became more confirmed in my beliefs that we don’t want to legalize this right now.
I think that the idea that what we’re doing is mixing skills is the problem, too. And I think the rule change would be that when you’re boxing, you box. When you’re wrestling, you wrestle. But there’s a reason why when a boxer falls to one knee or two knees, that the other boxer can’t come up and hit him in the head. And there’s a reason why in wrestling, you can’t hold a guy and at the same time whack him. It’s for the safety of the participant. You can’t do that. You asked me if I could imagine some rule changes that would demonstrate the skill of the various martial arts more clearly, and I would find that acceptable and the answer is yes. But I think the violence level would be greatly reduced, and I don’t know if promoters and advocates want to do that.