Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Community of Athletes in Exile...Still?

In 2011 when The Coalition to Legalize MMA in NY premiered its documentary New York Mixed Martial Arts at the Bronx Week Film Festival to a sold out crowd, we could not have imagined MMA would still be banned in New York five years later. Our intent was not to make a political film, but to make an educational film that introduced viewers to our community. The opposition to MMA in New York ignorantly paints us as violent, misogynistic and uneducated animals who have no place in New York’s society - that we need saving from ourselves.

After viewing the film, acclaimed director Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace, Fightville) wrote:
“Anyone who cares about the future of MMA in New York State needs to watch this eye-opening film to discover who and what is keeping MMA out of Madison Square Garden. Beyond the politics, however, this is a moving portrait of athletes in exile - men and women who are forbidden to engage in the sport they love in their own city.”

Since that time, as a direct result of the constitutional lawsuit against New York on behalf of Zuffa, LLC (parent company of the UFC) and several other plaintiffs, amateur MMA once again became a legally viable option for our athletes for the first time in a decade. Granted, as dictated by the current legislation, the amateur version of our sport is not regulated by the New York State Athletic Commission; and there have certainly been concerns regarding the lack of ubiquitous health and safety standards in third party bodies who have stepped in to fill the commission’s shoes. Nevertheless, the situation for amateurs in New York now is a far cry from the unregulated underground days of MMA in our state just a few years ago. Though there is still work to be done, it is a step in the right direction.  

Sadly, with regard to professionals, as state after state lifted their antiquated prohibitions, New York continued to lag behind. Year after year we would come close, get excited and hope that “this would be the year.” The Senate would pass the legislation; polls would demonstrate NewYorkers wanted professional MMA; Assembly committees would pass the legislation forward…only to be blocked by Sheldon Silver who, who as Assembly Speaker and an opponent of regulated MMA, would stop the bill in its tracks. So, while our amateurs had experienced a breath of new life, our professionals have remained, as Michael Tucker aptly noted: “a community of athletes in exile – men and women who are forbidden to engage in the sport they love.”

It has been quite a while since I posted about the effort to regulate professional MMA in New York. I apologize for the long delay and am thankful for all my readers who have reached out to ask where I have been. I am sure you can imagine how the hamster wheel that is the battle for regulated professional MMA in our state can facilitate apathy. I believe the entire New York MMA community feels it. Admittedly, I have become victim to this as well; preferring to focus a bit more on issues surrounding improvement in regulation of the amateur version of our beloved sport; which we thankfully do have in New York now.

After Albany’s failure to pass legislation outlining regulation of professional MMA in 2014, I had pretty much decided to hang up my gloves in this fight; or at least take a back seat. Years of getting involved, pushing letter writing campaigns, social media campaigns, organizing rallies, doing interviews, lobbying legislators, working with our supporters in Albany, writing stories, even producing a documentary seemed to have little effect on the political tide against us. It was harder and harder to get support in my efforts. People were tired of losing; tired of feeling unrepresented in Albany. Imagine a community of fighters feeling that powerless?

Please don’t misunderstand me; the New York MMA community is a strong one, a vibrant one and a virtuous one. The community has rallied around our amateur ranks with skyrocking numbers of regulated shows year after year. We even had our first amateur MMA event at none other than Madison Square Garden! We have made efforts to take care of the health and welfare of our fellow community members. For example, Live to Fight is a non-profit created by our community for our community that fights “relentlessly for those in the martial arts, mixed martial arts, and combat sports community who are suffering from life threatening illnesses.”

Regarding professional MMA, we have made our voices clear over and over again, and have fought for what we want:

Nevertheless, like Sisyphus’ eternal damnation to push a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down to the valley floor after all his efforts, we New Yorkers have begun to feel powerless against the self-interested power brokers who knew nothing about us and did not care to learn. We knew that we were a virtuous community, no matter how the opposition portrayed us. As philosopher Damon Young notes in his 2011 Daily News Op-Ed piece “Legalizing mixed martial arts in New York should not be a steel cage match:” 
“The physical virtues are obvious. Competitors must be strong, fast and agile. They have a sprinter's lungs, a weightlifter's shoulders and a gymnast's legs - all while keeping their dukes up. They move decisively from boxing to Judo to wrestling, often while coping with pain, exhaustion and pressure. They show the human body at its most swift and robust. 
There are also ethical virtues. To compete in MMA requires courage. Cowardice or foolhardiness won't do. Fighters must face danger with diligence and skill. 
Another virtue is restraint: You commit to a forceful punch or tight lock, but walk away once the fight is won. MMA thrives on mutual trust and cooperation. 
Generosity is also encouraged. The best fighters, like Canadian George Saint-Pierre, are upfront about their own talent - and their opponents'. They neither gush with praise nor withhold it. To win, they must recognize passion, skill and willpower when they see them. Pettiness is no aid. 
Temperance is another virtue: keeping one's body healthy. Anger and brute strength are not enough to win. MMA requires meticulousness in eating and drinking, as well as patience in training. If only more Americans had the fighter's disdain for sodas and snacks. 
Not every fighter exemplifies these traits. There are unfit, cruel, egotistical fighters - just as there are such athletes in every sport. Still, MMA encourages bona fide virtues.”

Then, what seemed a miracle occurred this year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges and replaced by Assemblyman Carl Heastie, himself a past co-sponsor of the Assembly MMA bill. Could this be the moment we have been waiting for? Would we finally get professional MMA in New York? Would our now thriving amateur community have a professional outlet to continue on in their careers?

With their stop-gap Sheldon Silver gone, the opposition has been clearly rattled and pushed their message louder than ever before. This brutal and misogynistic sport must not be allowed in our state! Editorial letters began to appear in local papers; like this one in the Albany Times Union:
“We find it unfortunate that mixed martial arts, previously called ultimate fighting, may soon be legalized in New York now that Sheldon Silver is no longer able to prevent a vote on it as speaker of the Assembly ("MMA support strengthens," March 4). 
Why do we need another form of fighting, when we already have so many forms of violence on television, in movies and in video games? A study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in January 2014 concluded that "Notwithstanding the paucity of data, the injury incidence in MMA appears to be greater than in most, if not all, other popular and commonly practiced combat sports." They also state that the most commonly injured body area is the head (66.8 percent to 78 percent of reported injuries). 
After learning in the last few years about the risk of concussions for football players, do we want another sport with these injuries? The recent news article shows that the main interest of advocates is the dollar sign. They tout the money to be made in fights, but don't discuss possible injuries of the fighters.
We are proud to live in the only state in the nation that has not legalized MMA. This is not an activity that we need in New York. We hope that others will agree and contact their legislators, telling them to say "no" to this so-called sport. 
Ann and David Brandon”
As harsh as this letter may seem, we know that this is a minority view in New York. We also know (though the Brandon’s neglected to mention this) that the “paucity” of data used in that 2014 study has been questioned with regard to its ability to be generalized. Furthermore, the authors of the study themselves note “More epidemiologic research is urgently needed to improve the accuracy of the injury incidence estimate, to determine the injury severity, and to identify more risk factors for injury in MMA.”

Ask and you shall receive. A January 2015 study, Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a review of which notes that after a 5 year study of 244 professional fighters cumulative brain damage, “Boxing is more dangerous than martial arts:”
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their focus on the head, the boxers in the study generally fared worse than the martial arts combatants, irrespective of age. They showed smaller volumes in the scanned regions of the brain and gave slower mental performances. 
If you want a combat sport that's less likely to cause brain damage, martial arts are better than boxing because they're not so focused on concussing the opponent.

"Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that boxers get hit in the head more," the authors suggest. "In addition to trying to concuss (i.e., knockout) their opponent, martial arts fighters can utilise other combat skills such as wrestling and jiu-jitsu to win their match by submission, without causing a concussion."
It seems a no-brainer that regulated MMA, both professional and amateur, is safer than an unregulated version of the sport; and MMA is clearly safer than boxing with regard to head trauma (not that head trauma does not exist in MMA), yet we still seem to have to point this point this out to our opponents. It also seems a no-brainer that we should not have to explain why MMA is empowering to women.

Regardless of whether the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence says we "contribute to a culture of violence against women" or the New York City Chapter of the National Organization for Women suggests “the issue of violence against women stands out as blight on our society, and nowhere is that violence more disturbingly displayed than in mixed martial arts culture,” we know the opposite is true. We know that MMA can bolster strength, autonomy and self-empowerment of women.

UFC Bantamweight Champion and fan favorite Ronda Rousey clearly doesn’t buy it. She lobbied in Albany this past week to make it clear that she believes MMA belongs in New York. On this very blog Beth Hurrle of The Gals Guide to MMA noted:
“I am trying to understand how a group that tries to stop violence can speak out against a sport that takes active steps to help kids protect themselves against bullying. They also completely ignore the countless women who have taken martial arts classes after being the victim of violence or to keep themselves from being victims of violence. People who practice mixed martial arts learn respect, self control and discipline. These are not virtues that you can associate with a man who beats and sexually assaults women.”
In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan, female MMA fighter L.A. Gennings notes:
“People who wanted to keep women out said they were trying to protect women's bodies — but I want to be in charge of my own body. The idea of men being violent and women being passive are social constructs. Fighting is no more masculine than parenting is feminine.”
Anyone who believes mixed martial arts serves to do anything other than bolster independence, equality and challenge female stereotypes needs to watch this piece on Malaysia’s first female professional MMA fighter.

So, things are looking great here in NY. We have a thriving amateur community, the Senate has passed the bill to regulate professional MMA and we have a past supporter of regulated MMA in the Assembly Speaker’s seat. The opposition is looking foolish as they unsuccessfully struggle to paint us as animals. We are in the home stretch. What could go wrong?

Well, this is New York after all and politics here never quite seems to add up logically. A detailed review by MMA Journalist Jim Genia of the MMA bill that recently passed in the Senate and is headed up the chain in the Assembly, reveals a troubling bit of news: if the current bill is passed in the Assembly as is, we will have to completely scrap amateur MMA in order to get professional MMA.

Yes, you heard me. The bill outlining regulatory requirements for professional MMA has also ratified the sections of the current law that allow for amateur MMA; effectively killing amateur MMA in New York by prohibiting both the New York State Athletic Commission and third party sanctioning bodies from regulating the amateur version of our sport. I suggest everyone read Jim’s breakdown to understand just how silly this is.

I know…I know. It sounds ridiculous. Let’s wipe out the amateur leagues which will feed the new professional leagues we are about to legalize. Let’s put measures in place that will force amateur MMA fighters back to unsafe unregulated underground fights. Let’s sacrifice the health and safety of the much larger amateur MMA community for the much smaller professional community. But, it is true. This is happening.

As fast as things are moving, the bill has not passed in the Assembly yet. Some minor changes in language could fix this problem all together. Jim Genia has some concrete suggestions with regard to how we can address this. Check out his piece: How to Fix a Bill: New York MMA Edition.

Fixing this involves YOUR HELP. I want professional MMA in New York as much as anyone. I think that much is clear. We are so close, closer than we have ever been. After years of fighting for this we deserve it. But, I do not want professional MMA if it will force all our amateurs back into the underground. If you want regulated professional and amateur MMA in New York, now is your time to speak up. Now is the time to contact your local Assembly member. Now is the time to demand the bill be ratified to allow for regulation of amateur MMA by the New York State Athletic Commission, or its proxy. As Jim says in his post:
“When a bill is wending its way through the legislature, it's a malleable thing, and subject to a multitude of changes that can come at any time in the process. And though the Senate-approved bill - S02159 - is a done deal, the Assembly version, A02604, is still a work in progress, and changes to A02604 would mean changes to S02159 (remember: bills are linked, and melded into one when they're presented to the governor to sign).”
At the end of 2015 will our New York MMA community, our entire community still be in exile? Time will tell, but now is your chance to make a difference. Pick up the phone and make the call. Let’s move the whole New York MMA community out of the underground.

Stephen Koepfer
Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York