Wednesday, November 16th, 2011...1:27 pm

The First Punch: UFC Sues State of New York

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By Nathan Yu

Ultimate Fighting Championship, known colloquially as UFC, is accustomed to fights. It is the leading mixed martial arts (MMA) organization, and has millions of fans–including myself–worldwide. As evidenced by its recent mega television deal with Fox Sports, UFC is arguably the fastest growing brand in sports. But that growth has never crossed the borders of New York. In 1997, the Empire State enacted a statute that banned live professional MMA events. After years of lobbying to repeal the act, UFC has decided that it has had enough, and has commenced a lawsuit against the State of New York, its Attorney General, and its District Attorney in Federal Court.

The lawsuit is being framed as a constitutional question. Specifically, UFC alleges that New York’s complete ban on live MMA events is an unconstitutional restriction against UFC’s freedom of speech. The complaint, which is a daunting 124-page document that you can read here, explains the two main points made by the MMA giant:  1) The controversial New York statute, § 8905(a), was initially adopted not out of concerns over the sport’s safety, but instead because legislators did not agree with the sport’s “violent” message;  and 2) Regardless of how “violent” the sport’s message is (more on this below), completely banning a form of entertainment based on its content and message is unconstitutional.

While I have not taken Constitutional Law, and thus do not have an adequate foundation to predict the court’s outcome on this issue, my intuition tells me that UFC has a solid case. Just some thoughts about the case and the parties involved:

First, I have to clear up the issue on the sport’s “violent” message. After its inception, UFC was tagged with a terrible reputation for being a blood sport. John McCain even went so far as to call it “human cockfighting.” But that was a long, long time ago. Since then, the UFC has undergone new ownership, new leadership, and a number of significant rule changes that have made the UFC less blood sport and more testosterone-driven art form. While the sport is certainly violent in nature, it does not necessarily mean the message is one of promoting or condoning violence. People will absorb what they want from any form of entertainment; I myself enjoy watching the rigorous training and discipline that fighting demands; I also enjoy the chess-like strategy that goes into a fight. Most importantly, the original proponents of the ban now acknowledge that the sport has in fact cleaned up its act.

Second, regardless of what the sport’s message is, you cannot ban it based on its message alone. All forms of entertainment qualify for this freedom of speech protection, and I do not think anyone will argue that MMA is not a form of entertainment (whether one enjoys it or not). If New York tries to argue that the issue is safety, UFC will counter that safety can be ensured through regulations, and that a ban is not necessary.

Third, the New York statute is perplexing. The statute allows boxing, wrestling, and certain types of martial arts (judo, tae kwon do, karate, kenpo). MMA is simply a combination of all of the previous combat sports that the state condones. Furthermore, the statute only prohibits professional exhibitions. In fact, Plaintiff’s complaint alleges that New York is home to countless amateur mixed martial artists and New York venues have held viewing parties for out-of-state MMA events.

Finally, this case has huge implications for the UFC. New York is the biggest media market in the nation, and opening the state to UFC events would help propel the UFC into even greater prominence. I can already think of the buzz that a UFC pay-per-view event would generate if held at the iconic Madison Square Garden. The UFC is already sanctioned in all but a few states, and has already reached many corners of the world, so New York remains the last meaningful domino to fall. Should the court grant UFC’s demand for an injunction, we could see a live event in New York sooner than anyone ever thought.

Nathan Yu is a regular contributor to the SELS Blog. He can be reached at nyu@email.wm.edu

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