This month, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) experienced one of its biggest Pay-Per-View events ever with “UFC 189,” live from Las Vegas, Nevada. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is widely considered to be the fastest growing sport in America and perhaps even the world. Thus, many different cities both inside and outside the United States have hosted MMA events. But in one state, New York, MMA remains illegal, and will likely remain that way for at least one more year. The sport is legal and regulated in the other 49 states.
The inability of New York legislators to end the prohibition of MMA remained the norm once again this year after a legalization bill was not brought before the New York State Assembly for a vote. The New York State Senate has passed a legalization bill each of the past six years. There was more hope for 2015 after former speaker of the New York Assembly Sheldon Silver, a major opponent of MMA legalization in the state, resigned due to an arrest on federal corruption charges back in January. But alas, there was not even a vote on the bill despite this advantage.
Who’s Against MMA?
It’s tempting to think that the continued political resistance to state sanctioned MMA bouts is a simple case of government nanny-stating creeping into the world of sports. After all, it was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who banned trans-fats, public smoking, and extra-large sodas (amongst other things). So perhaps it would make sense that the elected officials in the state of New York would extend the same kind of heavy handedness that Bloomberg so regularly applied to NYC. However, the real story is far more complicated and reeks of far more corruption than do-good politicians who try to run people’s lives.
The story of MMA’s continued illegality in the Empire State centers around two of the UFC’s owners, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. In addition to the UFC, the Fertittas also own Station Casinos in Las Vegas. This puts them at odds with the powerful Culinary Workers Union since Station Casinos is non-union. This union’s parent organization is called Unite Here and encompasses several different union organizations throughout the country. Unite Here’s headquarters is in New York City, and the union has managed to flex its muscle more effectively in New York. As a result, the union has kept legal MMA out of the state as part of its effort to ensure that businessmen who hire non-union staffs are not allowed to expand their business into New York. Union-bankrolled politicians have apparently been happy to assist in the effort.
The politicians who say they wish to ban MMA for safety reasons really have no leg to stand on. There has never been a life altering condition or death associated with the sport. Boxing can’t say the same, as anyone who has merely taken a glimpse of Mohammed Ali in the past twenty plus years can attest to. Football can’t say the same either, as Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Mike Webster all passed away long before their time. Both football and boxing are perfectly legal in the state of New York.
Not only are the dangers of MMA overblown, but there’s actually even more danger in not legalizing the sport. Just as occurred with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, alcohol consumption was driven underground and behind closed doors, resulting in increased instances of death, blindness, and organized crime; this is happening with MMA today. MMA activities have been driven underground in New York where it is far more dangerous. Many politicians never seem to learn the lessons of unintended consequences that come from banning something that people want.
It appears the New York State Assembly is not only using dirty politics as a roadblock to prevent the expansion of a business which is legal everywhere else in the country, but their continuing prohibition of this business is actually harming those in the state who wish to engage in the prohibited activity. Combine these things with the revenue lost by New York to other states willing to hold sanctioned MMA bouts and it adds up to a very steep price to pay to keep the union bosses happy. So the politicians and the unions may have us believe that this prevented legality is somehow worth it, the reality of the costs tell us that this simply isn’t true.