Thursday, November 17, 2011

UFC spearheaded lawsuit: Can a Zuffa change its spots for the benefit of New York MMA?

On Tuesday, November 15, attorneys representing Zuffa, LLC (parent company of the UFC) filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. seeking, among other things, a declaration that New York’s ban on live Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.  In the two days that have passed since this bombshell announcement the media, blogosphere, and MMA community has been pontificating about what this means for us here in NY, but more on that later.  First, a small bit of history…
Those who have followed this blog over the past year will certainly have noticed that I, and other members of the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York, have often been very critical of Zuffa with regard to their approach to the problem of New York’s ban on Live MMA. One point of criticism has been Zuffa’s apparent unwillingness to work together with the local grass roots and other members of the MMA community to tackle the problem of NY’s MMA ban. Historically, Zuffa has appeared insular in their actions here in NY.
Since New York criminalized live MMA in 1997, there have been a myriad of attempts to overturn the ban with no result.  Several years ago Zuffa began spending countless dollars on lobby efforts to no avail.  During the past year the fight here in NY gathered critical mass with the coming together of many individuals who had been notable in the local fight for MMA in NY. The result was the founding of this Coalition and all the public (and behind the scenes) efforts we have made including the release of our acclaimed documentary New York Mixed Martial Arts (produced by myself and directed by Coalition member Kahleem Poole-Tejada).  Still, in spite of majority support in Albany (in the Senate and Assembly), a local media who was finally talking about the issue in earnest, public rallies, screenings of the film across the state, lobby campaigns in Albany, TV and radio appearances, public panels, round table meetings, and a now thriving and active grass roots movement, the end of the 2011 legislative calendar still left us without legal live MMA.
Baffled, we were all left wondering what to do next.  Why did we fail again?  Was it the proxy war Zuffa is waging with Unite Here and the Culinary Unions here in NY?  Was it the apathetic and ignorant leadership in the State legislature?  Was it good old boy politics in Albany?  Was it the simple fact that MMA is just a blip on the radar of the NY’s financial and legislative problems?  Was it all of the above? Whatever the reason, it was clear another approach was needed.  Several of us in the Coalition had discussed the possibility of a lawsuit of some kind to force the issue, but we did not have the means to do so.  We were resigned to keeping the issue alive and waiting for the 2012 legislative calendar.
Then, in early September I was contacted by Barry Friedman, a constitutional lawyer and professor from New York University.  He explained that he was representing Zuffa and wanted to meet with myself, Justin Klein (The Fight Lawyer), and Kahleem – Poole Tejada (the Director of our documentary).  Friedman and his legal team were interested in a setting up a private screening of New York Mixed Martial Arts.  I believe I can safely say we were all skeptical and cautious, but we obliged.
At the meeting we watched the film and sat for several hours discussing the ins and outs of the NY MMA community, the battle for MMA in NY, and the rationale behind Zuffa’s impending lawsuit.  Friedman and his team were unexpectedly approachable.  What struck me most was their willingness to admit they needed education regarding the sport as a whole and help negotiating the NY MMA community waters.  Was this really Zuffa we were meeting with?  I, for one, had not felt this level of cooperation during past attempts to work with Zuffa’s representatives here in NY.  We all left the meeting with knowledge of the impending lawsuit (and promises to keep it under wraps) and a commitment to speak again.  
Over the following months I had many discussions with Mr. Friedman.  He graciously entrusted me with early copies of the complaint and asked for honest feedback.  Still skeptical, but fully aware that the suit would go on with or without my assistance, I offered my help.  I did (and still do) believe that if we were ever to get anywhere in NY, we needed an intervention such as this one; a radical change in approach.  Many in the local MMA community would not have favored my offering assistance, believing that Zuffa could not be trusted.  I too had worries that my suggestions would fall on deaf ears.  But, if the suit was to go on I wanted it to be the best and most accurate complaint possible.  
Friedman and I had many subsequent conversations regarding NY MMA history, local concerns with Zuffa’s past behaviors in NY, the need for unity in this suit, possible plaintiffs, the life of local fighters, the dark ages of martial arts under previous NY Athletic Commission leadership, and many other topics.  Additionally, he met with many of our Coalition members and other members of the local MMA community.  Some of whom are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
On Monday, November 15th I received a call from Mr. Friedman. He gave me a heads up that the suit would be filed the next morning.  I was nervous.  There were significant risks involved for us here in NY.  I had yet to see the final version of the complaint to be filed.  How had my criticism been received?  Were my suggestions taken into account?  Would I end up regretting my cooperation?  Would my friends who became involved in the suit based on my recommendation regret getting involved?  This was Zuffa after all.
On Tuesday morning I got a copy of the final complaint (all 106 pages of it). As I read through it I began to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Zuffa via Friedman and his team had done its homework, and in so doing have done right by the NY MMA community.  The document presented a clear cut account of the sport as a whole. This was not a UFC propaganda piece.  It truly reflected the diversity and passion that is NY MMA.  Plaintiffs included professional fighters, local amateur fighters, bloggers, fans, coaches, and gym owners.  The content of the complaint offers a clear account of the sport as a whole, its history and growth, its safety record, its financial importance, and most importantly its virtues.  In a rare moment for Zuffa, the complaint discusses the impact of Bellator, M-1 Global and many other smaller MMA promotions.  And most importantly, the complaint clearly makes the point that it is the falsely interpreted message of MMA that has perpetuated New York’s ban.   
After reading the final complaint I contacted Mr. Friedman to thank him for taking the local perspective into account.  According to Friedman, “The complaint in this case would not have looked as it did without the active involvement with many members of the NY MMA community” and that discussions with the local community “brought the New York grass roots experience to the fore.”  When asked about New York Mixed Martial Arts documentary, Friedman replied, “It taught us a lot about how the Ban affected people, and it also led us to some of our plaintiffs.  It is a great film, you should be very proud of it.”
Friedman went on to explain:

“Obviously the UFC is an important plaintiff in this case, but we wanted it to be about the fighters and fans, trainers, gym owners, the many people and perspectives that are affected by NY's senseless ban on MMA.  If one reads our (long) complaint, the center of it is the story of all these people.  We reached out to leaders in that community who had been at the forefront of the legalization effort, to help us locate the right plaintiffs and also to understand how the Ban affected countless New Yorkers.  And Steve, you deserve a special shout out for all the help you rendered; also Justin Klein over at Fight Lawyer.”
So where does this lawsuit leave us?  It is certainly not a cure all.  There are risks involved as this suit is no subtle tactic.  Legislators typically dislike when attempts are made to circumvent them.  Passage or failure of this suit aside, we risk angering the opposition.  In the event the suit is successful and the ban is repealed, we will still need to go through Albany for passage of legislation regarding MMA regulation in NY.  And in so doing, we will have to deal with a more angry and entrenched opposition.  However, it is my belief that we already have majority support in Albany and that many of our legislators are equally frustrated with the continued opposition by Assemblyman Bob Reilly, blockage of legislation by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and their cronies.  If Albany is forced to regulate MMA, I believe we may already have our ducks in a row upstate.
I highly suggest everyone take the time to read the full complaint. More than the voice of an exiled NY MMA community, it is a critical educational piece for non-fans.  Yes, it is 106 pages, but it will be worth it.  If you need some legal clarifications, I urge you to read Jim Genia’s breakdown of the complaint.  For some in depth discussion of the suit, listen to this episode of the Darce Side Radio where Jim Genia and Peter Lampasona of US Combat Sports sit in live to discuss the suit and what it means for NY.
So, did Zuffa change its spots for the benefit of NY MMA?  In this case they did. A tip of the hat goes to Zuffa, Barry Friedman, and his whole legal team.  Go get them!

Stephen Koepfer
Founder, Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York

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