Monday, April 11, 2011

One Man in the Way of MMA in New York

Reprinted with permission from US Combat Sports

By Peter Lampasona

It's April in New York. Beaches are opening on Long Island. Fair-weather joggers are more easily coaxed into Central Park. And Albany is square in the middle of the political horse trading that is the legislative session. Among the issues being debated on the capital is a perennial battle for the sanctioning of mixed martial arts competition in the Empire State.

Debate about the value, both economic and ethical, of the young and often misunderstood sport can be put aside this year, as it has in years past. For the third time in a row, the bill to sanction MMA is nearly set to appear on the State Senate floor, where it will likely pass without issue. Yet, the sister bill in the State Assembly hovers in limbo where it may, also for the third year in a row, time out in committee before it ever sees an honest democratic vote.

A representative from the office of Assembly MMA bill sponsor Steve Englebright said that the legislation was ready to be put on the first of several committee schedules, and has been ready for over a month, yet could not speculate as to the reasons for the hold up.

No speculation is necessary. Everyone familiar with Albany knows that the third annual subversion of the lawmaking process is caused by one man whose name never even enters the lexicon of the debate on MMA in New York. That man is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Vocal opponents of the sport, such as upstate Assemblyman Bob Reilly and his Kantian objections to all forms of violence and aggression, provide an entertaining distraction for Silver's magic act as he single-handedly bars sanctioning in New York while avoiding all accountability for doing so.

Silver's office has openly refused to comment on the issue of MMA. His press secretary has loudly rebuked attempts to get the Speaker's opinion on even things as vague as the sport in general. The on-paper justification for Silver's expressed neutrality is that, as Speaker, he is a reflection of the majority party as a whole and does not want to influence the consensus with his own opinion.

In reality, no bill gets stuck in committee if Silver favors it. Nor does any bill get out when he doesn't. Mention that the popular suspicion is that a bill is being held up because of Silver and every other member of the Assembly will meet that accusation with a "that is how it is shrug." That Silver is the deciding factor is a well known fact that can't be proven. He is a whip who disguises himself as a mirror when people complain about the lashes.

Zuffa Entertainment, owners of the largest MMA organization in the world, The Ultimate Fighting Championship, and MSG Sports have pooled their resources in the lobbying effort to get the sport into the Empire State. But that effort is largely focused on Madison Square Garden and the benefits MMA would have on Mid-Town.

With no specific tribute paid to Silver's 64th district, the New York MMA promoters who are forced to spend extra money bringing their business to New Jersey, the New York MMA fans who often have to opt out of supporting their small local shows and athletes because they have to go so far to compete, and the New York MMA athletes who deserve to be able to play the game at home can all be damned. Shelly wants his cut.

In February, The Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York held a rally in front of Silver's district office in downtown Manhattan. The modest collection of MMA fans was one of the most organized and polite demonstrations that downtown had ever seen, with a clear and concise message that they wanted MMA brought to the state.

After the rally, whispers started to circulate from behind the scenes, once again with no public statement on the matter, that Silver was angry. As he should be. How dare a group of voters hold him at all accountable for something that is well known to be his fault but he has successfully hid behind the thin veil of plausible deniability?

Well, after three years running, Sheldon Silver isn't the only one who is angry. New Yorkers in the MMA community have every right to hold legitimate sporting competitions at home just as they can in almost every other state and tribal reservation in the continental United States. And these New Yorkers are tired of pretending to believe Silver's sleight of hand.

At this point every phone call to Albany, every letter to local representatives, and every public statement made by MMA's supporters needs to call out Silver on his accountability in this issue and to his constituency. Big lobby money only makes Silver want to collect another check when the battle starts again next year. Polite debate has only caused Silver to hide behind more vocal figureheads in the argument. The Speaker owes New York a statement other than "no comment."

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