'Unions v. State of New York': The Battle Over Mixed Martial Arts

Set aside Wisconsin’s Governor Walker for a moment – another crucial ‘unions vs. the people’ showdown is happening right now in New York.

Most of us have heard of mixed martial arts (MMA), the fastest growing sport in the world, and its largest organization, the Ultimate Fighter Champion (UFC).  Conservative radio host and best-selling author Mark Levin gushes it is “the greatest sport around.”  Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, MMA has been legalized in every single one – save for three:  Connecticut (though MMA is allowed within its Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun reservations), Vermont, and… New York.  New York?!  Seems odd that the home of millions of MMA fans, of Madison Square Garden, and of the most historic entertainment events, is one of the lone standouts.  The reason?  The unions.

“But why do unions, whose members would benefit from the legalization of MMA through added jobs and wages, oppose this legalization?,” you wonder.  Good question.

Writing for National Review last month, I touched upon the unions’ reasons for preventing MMA’s legalization:

Ever wonder why there’s never been an MMA match at Madison Square Garden, or anywhere in New York State? Thank the unions and their notorious strong-arm tactics. . . . As Lorenzo Fertitta [majority shareholder of the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, Inc.] explained: “The fact that MMA is not legal in New York is solely because of the Culinary Union.”  Wait, what?!  Fertitta is referring to the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, a 60,000-member union in Nevada representing those in the hospitality industry, mostly casino employees. Through Zuffa, the Fertitta brothers [Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta] are the majority shareholders of the UFC. Frank is also CEO/Chairman of Station Casinos Inc., the Fertitta family business started by his grandfather in 1976 with a mere 90 employees, which grew into a nearly $1 billion company with 13,000 employees — employees who have elected not to unionize, making Station Casinos the largest non-union gaming company in the country — the Wal-Mart of the gaming world, if you will.

Safe to say, the Fertittas are not on any union bosses’ Christmas list. For 30 years, the Culinary Union has tried unsuccessfully to unionize Station Casinos’ employees. So, in an apparent effort to put pressure on the Fertittas (or to exact a bit of retribution), the Culinary Union has made it a point to prevent MMA’s legalization, using its affiliates’ substantial political power in New York.

This past October, USA Today noted the unions’ relentless attacks on MMA: “As part of its campaign to pressure the Fertittas, the Culinary Union has tried to cut into their UFC business by going through government and political channels.”  (emphasis added)  The article recaps the unions’ tactics:  backing anti-MMA legislation in New York; calling on the FTC to investigate UFC for monopolistic practices [the FTC announced last month it was closing its investigation, having found nothing of concern]; a website focused exclusively on attacking UFC President Dana White; a petition calling on Fox to back away from its deal to broadcast UFC events; and demanding Anheuser-Busch pull its Bud Light sponsorship of UFC.

Their latest attack?  This week, the aforementioned Las Vegas Culinary Union, whose website is largely dedicated to attacking the Fertitta family’s Station Casinos (ironically, a company routinely listed as one of Fortune Magazine’s ‘Best Companies to Work For’), went before the Las Vegas Athletic Commission to protest what they call ‘exploitative business practices’ in MMA, calling on the Commission to demand a Bill of Rights for the sports’ participants.  Keep in mind:  this is a hospitality services union — not a sports union; it should, theoretically, have no interest in, nor spend their members’ dues on, protesting the UFC.

So why do unions continue to attack the UFC and MMA’s legalization in New York?  The clear message:  ‘If you own a company whose employees elect not to unionize (e.g., Station Casinos), we will come after you, your management, and any other business ventures of yours (UFC), no matter how unrelated.’  A shakedown, in other words.

Watch UFC President Dana White discuss (May 2011 press conference):

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Folks, the blockage of MMA’s legalization in New York is Chicago-style, Alinskyite, old-school union pressure at its best – and at the expense of New Yorkers (a state drowning in debt and desperate for revenue) and of union members themselves who are being held hostage by their bosses, sacrificed as leverage, in order to pressure a private company in Las Vegas to unionize.

But have the unions influenced New York State legislators? All signs point to a resounding ‘YES,’ else the measure would not still be in limbo, despite four years in existence.

Let’s take a look at MMA’s key opponents.  The most vocal critic of the MMA’s legalization is Assemblyman Bob Reilly (D), whose purported reasons for his staunch, oft-irrational, opposition are based on the violence of the sport.  “Violence begets violence,” Reilly says.  Well, MMA is watched by New Yorkers on television (Pay-Per-View, Spike, FOX) – so how is watching a match on TV versus at MSG any different?  So much for that argument.  Violence in general?  Does Reilly seek to ban ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and other such videogames?  No.  To have the police shut down New York’s (ironically, legal) amateur MMA bouts?  No.  What of Reilly’s concerns about the “brutality” and “injuries” in the sport?  Again, no dice.  A study by John Hopkins University concluded that the injury rate in MMA competitions is similar to those in other combat sports and, in fact, knockout rates are lower than in boxing, as are risks of brain injury.  Forty percent of boxers have chronic brain injury and dozens have died in the ring (indeed, a 2007 ESPN article was entitled: “Death in the ring has long been a part of boxing”).  Deaths in the UFC’s 17-year-history?  Zero.  Yet does Reilly seek to ban boxing?  No.  Does Reilly seek to ban the far more dangerous high school football (hundreds are hospitalized each month) or even cheerleading?  No.  And, most curious of all, is New York any more enlightened than the 45 other states that have seen fit to legalize MMA?  Of course not.

Blogger Kevin Marshall researched Reilly’s ties to the unions, in a May 2011 article originally entitled: “Bob Reilly sells MMA vote to the highest bidder”, subsequently changed to the less inflammatory: “Bob Reilly’s position on MMA influenced by major contributor.”  Marshall writes: “If it seems like MMA opponents like Reilly have an ulterior motive, it’s because they do,” noting that UNITE-HERE, a national union and parent organization of the Las Vegas Culinary Union, has, interestingly enough, consistently contributed to Reilly’s campaigns, as well as the State Democratic Election Committee and the Democratic State Assembly Committee.  Marshall’s most startling find:

Reilly was involved in a tight race in the Fall of 2010, where he was re-elected to his fourth term by a mere 542 votes. In October and November, with Reilly losing ground, the State Democratic Committee increased its fundraising efforts and the money flowed in with renewed vigor for that and other races. In those two months, the New York State AFL-CIO Cope Fund [UNITE-HERE re-affiliated themselves with the AFL-CIO in 2009] contributed a total of $31,000 to the New York State Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. Guess how much the New York State Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee donated to Friends of Bob Reilly in those two months? $30,000. No guff.

According to the independent watchdog, Project Vote Smart, which lists campaign contributions, the sector that most contributed to Reilly’s campaign besides ‘political party’ was… Labor.

Reilly’s opposition is so intense that when former Governor Paterson included MMA’s legalization in his 2010 budget, a method which would have enabled the legalization to bypass the cumbersome bill-path process, Reilly sent a letter to the Speaker asking for the item to be removed – and the matter was sent back to square one.

Watch Forbes SportsMoney segment on MMA’s legalization in New York (May 2011):

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So what of the other MMA-legalization opponents in New York?  Foremost is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) who, as Speaker, has the power to either call for an Assembly vote on the bill, or refuse and have the bill remain in limbo.  As Mike Chiappetta, a senior writer at ‘MMA Fighting’ wrote:

Silver is considered the most powerful man in the state capital, a title agreed upon by both the New York Times and the New York Post. Due to the overwhelmingly Democratic-controlled Assembly, Silver has huge sway over what bills get introduced for a full vote, and which stall out before ever reaching that point. He has the power to greenlight a bill through traffic, and create gridlock where there is none. Dr. Douglas Muzzio, a professor at New York’s Baruch College and longtime political analyst, told MMA Fighting last October that ‘nothing happens legislatively in the New York State Assembly’ without Silver’s OK.

When asked last June if the bill would reach the Assembly floor, Silver shrugged it off, telling the New York Daily News: “There does not appear to be widespread support in the Assembly for this legislation.”  An odd thing to say, given that only a few months earlier, the Senate had voted in favor of the measure by a wide margin (42-18), with bipartisan support, no less.  Mr. Silver’s campaign contributions data reveals the industry from which he received the most funds?  Unions.  Then there is Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, Jr. (D), another staunch opponent of MMA’s legalization (“I don’t think very much of the sport… Next we’ll give them clubs with spikes on the end…”) and Chairman of Ways and Means, one of the main committees a bill must pass through and where the bill stalled last year.  Top contributions came from which sector?  You guessed it, Labor!

See a pattern?  To be sure, this writer is confident Mr. Reilly, Silver, and Farrell are highly ethical, upstanding public officials.  But their ties to unions — combined with their lack of any reasonable basis for opposing MMA, shunning the economic benefits consideration, and apparent opposition to allowing a mere vote in the Assembly (as democracy would indicate) — understandably raises many eyebrows and gives one pause. As Arsenio Hall used to say, “Things that make you go ‘hmmm’.”  Surely these officials wish to do what is best for their constituents and put to rest the growing murmurs and suspicions.  Why have union interests monopolized this issue for years, rather than New Yorkers’ freedom and economic interests prevailing?  One study found that holding a mere two UFC events would generate $23 million for the state. Keep in mind, these are conservative estimates, for a recent UFC event held in Toronto had an economic impact, in one weekend alone, of a staggering $45 million.  Legalizing MMA is a no-brainer method to bring in revenue (please, not another tax on already-burdened smokers!) — all for simply allowing two adult, elite athletes in a heavily regulated, highly safe environment (with, again, a better safety record than boxing) to perform combat arts dating back thousands of years.

Perhaps the New York Post’s George Willis said it best, including MMA’s legalization in his 2012 wishlist: “C’mon already. UFC is packing arenas, making an economic impact and generating tax revenue in just about every state but New York.”  Agreed, George … but you underestimate the unions’ power.

The bill to overturn the ban on MMA and legalize mixed martial arts, S1707A, sponsored by Senator Joseph Griffo (R), with strong support from Assemblyman Dean Murray (R), is currently attempting its way through the legislative process, for the fourth straight year in a row.  The unions show no sign of relenting and, on the contrary, are stepping up their efforts.  This matter should concern all Americans, for the battle is not even limited to MMA – it is about unions co-opting and corrupting the political process and getting away with a shakedown against business and individual freedom, four years and counting.