Monday, April 13, 2015

Days of Future Past: What to Expect When the Law Changes


It's impossible to predict the future - even a future that could be upon us in as little as a few weeks - but there is insight to be had from looking carefully at the past. Such is the case with the Combative Sports Law, which was enacted in 1997 to ban MMA from New York, and which may soon be dramatically altered to bring sanctioned iterations of the sport into the state's rich and fertile lands. Or something like that. What exactly is going to happen if and when the MMA bill hits the Assembly floor and passes in a whirlwind of bipartisan support? What specifically is going to change? No one can say with any certainty, but this is what happened when the ban first went into effect, and that should provide us with some hints.

First, the background on the circumstances that gave birth to the Combative Sports Law.

The mid-'90s version of the UFC was something far different than what we have today, and as such, there was quite a bit of public and political outcry to stamp out this scourge of "human cockfighting". But fighting in the cage was legal in New York in late 1996, so the UFC announced plans to hold an event here (UFC 12, which would've been the second time the UFC came to the state). When Extreme Fighting, the UFC's main competitor back then, very publicly stated they'd be doing the same, all hell broke loose. Governor George Pataki instructed the New York State Athletic Commission to step in, and the NYSAC imposed enough rules and regulations to render a UFC event somewhat impossible. That tactic gave the legislature enough time to pass the Combative Sports Law, and here we are.

Except things have always been a bit murky when it comes to how the law has been interpreted and enforced.

Though the statute is pretty clear in how it prohibits pro MMA bouts, the state turned a blind eye towards such fights for about five years after the ban became law. There were MMA tournaments held in the gymnasium of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, pro MMA events held at the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island and in Russian nightclubs in Brooklyn, and promoter Lou Neglia would insert MMA bouts onto his kickboxing cards - some of which featured the likes of Matt Serra and Phil Baroni, and some of which occurred in hotel ballrooms in Times Square. The athletic commission told promoters they really only cared about keeping the UFC out, and commission officials would sometimes even sit ringside at these shows.

A personnel change in the athletic commission brought a radically different interpretation of the law in 2002, and promoters were suddenly told outright they couldn't even do grappling tournaments because grappling was too much like mixed martial arts. That, plus an upstate promoter putting on shows where drunks from the audience were encouraged to lace up the gloves and fight - which prompted the legislature to pass a liquor law banning alcohol at all pro and amateur MMA events - drove everything out of state or underground. Suddenly, the Combat Sports Law was being strictly enforced, and when it came to amateur fights, it was even being "over-enforced".

(Obviously, it would take about ten years for state officials to reverse their opinion and concede that the law did not ban amateur mixed martial arts.)

When the law lifting the ban is approved by the Assembly (which can literally happen overnight), the Senate and Assembly bills are merged into one document with all language finalized, and it is presented to the governor to sign. Once the governor signs it, the bill becomes a law that goes into effect 90 days later. That means the athletic commission will have three months to iron out rules and regulations, and put its apparatus for sanctioning pro MMA events into place by roughly September.

Based on the lessons learned from the past, we can see that it's entirely possible that all aspects of the statute will be strictly enforced... or not. That could mean that amateur MMA sanctioned by third-party organizations will continue on through the summer and beyond, or it could mean that they're banned come the fall. Because of the wording of the MMA bill, it's pretty probable that all events that aren't sanctioned by at least a state-approved third-party organization will be gone.

The new law will definitely mean that the athletic commission will be overseeing pro MMA events of all shapes and sizes, and given that there will surely be a glut of would-be promoters wanting to put on shows, it means that some events will get approved and some won't based on the commission's ability to staff them. Worth noting is the fact that New York State encompasses a pretty big geographic area, so logistically it's going to be quite the pickle for the athletic commission to oversee an event in Manhattan on Friday and then get up to Buffalo for an event on Saturday.

Will approved third-party organizations be allowed to sanction pro MMA bouts? Based on the current wording of the bill, they won't be allowed to - but again, will that be enforced? No approved third-party organization has tried to put on a pro MMA bout in the history of the statute, so this is really uncharted territory that was barely explored by the UFC's lawsuit.

If anything, the lesson the past teaches us is that there's what's written in the law and what's interpreted and enforced. In a perfect world, all those things meet.

Sadly, our world is not perfect.

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