Thursday, March 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Bob Reilly's "The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York" Memo


For a few years, the battle for lifting the ban on pro MMA in New York invariably involved dealing with the anti-MMA vitriol spouted by Assemblyman Bob Reilly (who has since retired). No one against the sport was as vocal as Assemblyman Reilly, and because any MMA bill on its way to the Assembly floor had to first get past the subcommittee he sat on, we were constantly subjected to his cries of excessive violence and the decay of society.

In the 2009 legislative session, Assemblyman Reilly circulated a memo titled "The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York", delivering it to his fellow legislators to help sway their opinions on the matter.

Of course, since the email addresses of all New York State legislators are readily available on their webpages, there was nothing stopping a concerned citizen from drafting a memo of their own and sending it out to the Assembly.

Which is what I did. You can read my memo below.

The Case Against
“The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York State
By Jim Genia


            That Assemblyman Reilly is against the spread of mixed martial arts into the Empire State is well-documented.  When a bill to repeal the ban on professional MMA came before the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development last year, Assemblyman Reilly, a committee member, took the opportunity to rail against what he felt was an important cause.  “We ban cockfighting and dog fighting,” he decried.  “Should we allow humans to enter a cage to knee, kick and punch each other?” 
The bill stalled then, but its inevitable return for legislative scrutiny this year has had Assemblyman Reilly working overtime giving interviews and scribbling editorials.  He’s against New York State reaching the same conclusion that New Jersey, Nevada, California, Pennsylvania and 33 other states have come to, that mixed martial arts is safe and worthy of sanctioning.  To counter the momentum of Assemblyman Steve Englebright’s mixed martial arts legalization bill and the lobbying efforts of Zuffa, LLC (the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship), as well as hard economic data and overwhelming public opinion, Assemblyman Reilly has circulated a memo called “The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York State”.  The arguments contained within his memo are full of holes.
            Assemblyman Reilly’s “Case Against Ultimate Fighting” posits that the sport should remain illegal because, among other things, “ultimate fighting is a form of violence that physically harms the participants and has a negative effect on children, adults and society as a whole”, that “ultimate fighting would have a negative effective on the economics of New York State and local municipalities”, and that “the majority of New Yorkers do not want ultimate fighting legalized in New York State”.  Each of these arguments is flawed in their own amusing ways, as this memo will illustrate.

“Ultimate Fighting is Violent (And I Know Violence When I See It)”

            Assemblyman Reilly attempts to paint the sport of mixed martial arts (sic, “ultimate fighting”) with the broad strokes of the word “violent”, alluding that this makes it something bearing no redeeming value.  In his attempt to define this violence, he calls up Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous phrase “I know it when I see it” – a curious choice, as Justice Stewart later distanced himself from that phrase after it was deemed legally unsound.  But Assemblyman Reilly trudges on, arguing that regardless of the skills necessary to compete in it and the high-degree of athletic commitment required of its competitors, mixed martial arts is simply appalling to those who watch it.  Never mind the amateur wrestling champions, from the high school-level to the college-level to the Olympic medalists, who have toiled hard to succeed in mixed martial arts.  Never mind the judo masters, who’ve devoted much of their life to perfecting their art and who turned to mixed martial arts for a new challenge.  And never mind the Brazilian grappling specialists, heroes in their own country, who have helped turn the training of mixed martial artists into an exact science.  Their collective skills and accomplishments mean nothing to Assemblyman Reilly, for they are all but mere purveyors of something “violent”.
            “While there exists injuries in virtually every sport, only in ultimate fighting is injury to an opponent an objective of a contestant,” says Assemblyman Reilly, simultaneously misinterpreting the rules (more on that later) and ignoring the fully sanctioned combative endeavors of professional boxing, and Olympic sports such as wrestling, judo and Tae Kwon Do.  Is injuring an opponent the objective in a mixed martial arts bout?  It is not.  But if it were, there would certainly be more injuries contained within its history.  Mixed martial arts has far too many safeguards in place for its injury rate to compare to those of boxing, high school football, NASCAR and even cheerleading.  As per the website, “MMA fighters are given more care and precaution than athletes in any other sports organization in the world.  With supervised fights, pre- and post-fight MRIs, four ringside doctors and two ambulances in case of emergency at each event and mandatory steroid testing – these organizations reach the highest levels of safety and quality in all aspects of the sport.”
“Some 13 deaths have been reported prior to the organization of the sport into the current franchises and the establishment of the present rules,” Assemblyman Reilly states erroneously, apparently confusing “Toughman” bouts, where unskilled amateurs merely box each other in loosely-regulated contests, with mixed martial arts.  There have been no deaths in unsanctioned mixed martial arts since the sport was introduced to the United States in 1993, and there has only been one death in professional, sanctioned mixed martial arts (Assemblyman Reilly claims there have been two, Sam Vasquez in Texas and Douglas Dedge in the Ukraine, but Dedge’s death was in an unregulated event overseas).  Any death is an unfortunate occurrence, but for a sport where “injury to an opponent” is an alleged objective, it’s a remarkable feat that more aren’t dead, no?  “Of course,” says Assemblyman Reilly, “if ultimate fighting were to have an extended history one could assume many more resulting deaths.”  In the last four mixed martial arts events in New Jersey, spanning from February 20, 2009 to March 28, 2009, there were 114 competitors.  None died.  None even came close. In fact, all 114 left the cage on their own two feet. 

The Rules of Ultimate Fighting (In Japan, That Is)

Assemblyman Reilly states, “It is indisputable that according to the rules themselves inflicting injury on an opponent rather than a demonstration of skill is the primary criteria for ultimate fighting,” and he goes on to cite the judging criteria for the Pride Fighting Championships.  What Assemblyman Reilly neglects to acknowledge, however, is that the Pride Fight Championships was an organization (now defunct) that operated primarily in Japan and did not utilize the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.  According to the Unified Rules, as codified by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and other state athletic commissions, proposed for New York State and used in nearly every sanctioned mixed martial arts bout within the United States, the judging criteria is based on effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defense.  The words “inflicting injury” or even “damage” do not appear anywhere in the Unified Rules’ judging criteria.  If Assemblyman Reilly wants to believe the goal of a mixed martial arts bout is to hurt an opponent, he is certainly free to do so.  But if he wants to make that belief into an assertion of fact, he won’t find support for it within the Unified Rules.

“The Effects of Violence on People and Society” (i.e., If Not For Ultimate Fighting, There Would Be No Violence)

            It is Assemblyman Reilly’s contention that the “violence” put forth by mixed martial arts is the genesis of children acting out and misbehaving, and he points to an instance where a mother instructed her daughter to “fight, kick and punch a juvenile female victim” while 30 people watched the fight, as well as an instance of a backyard wrestling league that could be perceived as “criminally violent”.  How are the actions of these children relevant to the legalization of mixed martial arts in New York State?  According to Assemblyman Reilly, “It is difficult to convince young people that their fights are not acceptable when they see adults participating in ultimate fighting” – an interesting argument indeed, as it marginalizes the role of parenting and aggrandizes his perception of a sport.  Is it Assemblyman Reilly’s belief that if not for mixed martial arts there would be no violence or children misbehaving?  Really?
“An example of how violence begets violence are the threats made to the author due to his opposition to the sport,” says Assemblyman Reilly.  “Assembly staff deemed if necessary to report some of the threats made to his physical well being to the New York State Police.  While legislators routinely receive objectives to various proposed legislation, the reaction from constituents and the general public rarely approach the vileness of some of the email and blog messages directed at the author in ‘support’ of ultimate fighting.”  Assemblyman Reilly then quotes an anonymous Internet poster who suggested “Dana White (President of the UFC) send some goons over to his house at midnight to shut him up”.  Is it Assemblyman Reilly’s contention that this anonymous post on an Internet bulletin board, that Assemblyman Reilly would have had to actively search for, was some sort of credible threat? 

“The Economics of Ultimate Fighting” – Or, “We Don’t Want Your Stinkin’ Tax Money”

            A report commissioned by Zuffa, LLC went to great lengths to outline the economic benefits of legalizing mixed martial arts in New York State (see UFC Event Impacts: Economic Study for New York State, prepared by HR&A).  The numbers behind those benefits won’t be re-examined here, suffice to say that gate taxes, pay-per-view and television taxes and other forms of secondary revenue would bring an infusion of cash into the Empire State for events both large and small.  Assemblyman Reilly, however, disagrees.  He says, “Not only… would government receive a small percentage of the total revenue, but most importantly a huge amount of money would be taken out of the local and State economy with relatively minimal effect.”  He then analogizes the run-down and poverty-stricken areas surrounding casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City (which, coincidently, has been amazingly revitalized in recent years) to the “actual impact that ultimate fighting would bring to an area.”  That sort of analogy is akin to comparing apples and lawn chairs.  A more apt comparison would be comparing the economic impact of a mixed martial arts event to the economic impact of any other professional sporting event held at Madison Square Garden, the Times Union Center in Albany or the HSBC Arena in Buffalo.  In making his leap in logic, Assemblyman Reilly fails to explain how a sanctioned mixed martial arts event – with 15,000 spectators spending money, eating in local restaurants and helping provide a paycheck to concession stand workers, security guards and other venue employees – is more like what happens at a casino.  Assemblyman Reilly does, however, make a point of saying that Zuffa, LLC is based out of Nevada and that whatever money they earn (outside of taxes paid to New York State) would go back to Nevada with them.  Is Assemblyman Reilly ignoring that fact that there are a host of New York-based promoters eagerly anticipating the day they can hold events in their home state?  Surely Assemblyman Reilly doesn’t believe those New York promoters will send their revenue to Nevada as well?       

“Public Opinion” As Per A Woefully Skewed Poll

            Assemblyman Reilly commissioned Gramercy Communications to conduct a telephone survey in February, 2009, polling people within the Assemblyman’s own district (the 109th District).  Constituents in that small area north of Albany were given the following automated question: “Ultimate fighting, or mixed martial arts, is currently banned in New York State.  There is current debate whether ultimate fighting should be permitted statewide.  Do you think ultimate fighting matches should be allowed in New York State?”  A grand total of 468 109th District residents were responded, with 67% of this small, not-quite-a-fair cross-section of New York opposed to legalizing mixed martial arts.
            Using this same methodology and statistic-gathering technique, a poll taken during a recent visit to a New York City-based martial arts school yielded much different results.  One hundred people were asked if they favored legalizing mixed martial arts in New York State, and all one hundred claimed they are for it.  As the percentage of those in favor polled in the study conducted within a martial arts school is clearly greater than the percentage of those against mixed martial arts polled in Assemblyman Reilly’s district, then it’s obvious Assemblyman Reilly’s exceedingly viable survey should be discounted – it’s been trumped by a poll of equal viability.


As opposition voices go, proponents of legalizing professional mixed martial arts in New York State could have had worse.  Supporters of MMA could have had to face off against an opposition memo with well-reasoned and rational arguments, an opposition memo with a concise message to go along with its impassioned morality plea.  Instead, fans and industry insiders of the fastest growing – and one of the statistically safest – sports in the world got “The Case Against Ultimate Fighting in New York State”.  It certainly could have been worse.

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