Local fighters, fans, and MMA businesses cringed this summer as yet another legislative year passed in New York without the bill to legalize mixed martial arts reaching the assembly floor. It seemed all of the money Zuffa spent lobbying Albany coupled with a strong grass roots effort by the local NY MMA community (including public rallies, film festival documentary screenings, media appearances, and petitions) still could not persuade State Speaker Sheldon Silver to recognize the cause by putting it to a vote. Hearts sank, hope wavered, and new approach was desperately needed. Never one to concede defeat, Dana White recently took to calling out New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in a lawsuit that promises to be a five round 1st amendment throw down.
In Zuffa’s corner we have NYU professor and black belt in constitutional law, Berry E. Friedman, along with attorney Jamie Levitt. They will be taking on the NY legislature’s henchmen and their 1997 statewide ban on Mixed Martial arts. Here’s a breakdown of the major arguments Friedman and Levitt plan on making and provided in their interview with Luke Thomas of SBNATION.COM.
Over broadness/Vagueness of ban: One of Zuffa’s major arguments is that the ban put in place in 1997 is extremely restrictive. It bans live professional bouts, any person from profiting from combative sports activity, and even goes on to ban the “advancement” of MMA in NY. So why is there a 2-story UFC billboard in Times Square? What about all the blogs, news articles, and websites produced in New York clearly aimed at advancing MMA? Are they illegal? Can a local artist sell his MMA t-shirts? Can bars offer specials during UFC PPVs? NY State officials can’t even determine what a “professional” MMA bout is. At times they’ve lumped amateur bouts into the ban bin. Court precedent shows they prefer any state law declaring an act as criminal do so in the most specific and less restrictive way possible, so as not to dissuade a citizen from engaging in a similar act that very well may be legal. By arguing the ambiguous nature of the ban, Zuffa lawyers could force the opposition to provide concise and evidence driven reasons why the sport should be criminalized.
Irrationality: The 97’ ban points to the inherent violence and health risks of professional MMA. Friedman and Levitt plan on showing that New York allows plenty of activities including bull riding, boxing, and alpine skiing that are equally as violent or dangerous. If the state’s concern over the MMA is really safety then regulation, not an outright ban that forces the sport underground, would be the best course in protecting participants.
Freedom of Speech: A major argument for the ban was the violent message politicians believed MMA carried. This lawsuit doesn’t just have Zuffa as a plaintiff but also a dozen others including physically handicapped Matt Hamill and war veteran Brian Stann who hope to educate the court on the inspirational message mixed martial arts carries. Zuffa’s lawyers hope to show that ban violates the first amendment by not allowing fighters like Stann and Hamill to convey this message at live events. The constitution does not protect only written or spoken speech, but also performances such as dance or parades. As Levitt explains it “When the professional athletes get into a live performance or a live arena they are talking to the audience and the audience is talking back to them, that’s what we are trying to protect”. They also point the highly artistic techniques used in live fights as forms of art and expression.
Impeding Interstate trade: A fairly technical portion of the constitution prohibits states from disrupting the free-flow of commerce. What NY has unintentionally done is allowed in-state business such as a local MMA training gym to prosper while out-of-state businesses such as an east coast fighting organization or a New Jersey professional fighter is barred from doing their business in state.
This new approach has many in New York excited. At the same time state law makers don’t like it when someone goes over their head. Even if the ban is lifted we’ll still need to go through the legislature if we’re going to land the UFC in Madison Square Garden. The best way to help is to visit the White House website and sign the petition to legalize MMA in New York. For more info on the NY’s MMA campaign visit the homepage of NY MMA NOW.