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As mixed martial arts moves toward legalization in New York, backers at Barclays Center should consider neighborhood impact

If you go by the press coverage, the New York State legislature is on the way to legalizing mixed martial arts (MMA), the last state to allow this violent but popular hybrid of boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and more.

As the Daily News (and others) reported 2/23/16, a press conference at the Barclays Center featured Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams:
"We are here for one reason only. We are ready to crown mixed martial arts here in Brooklyn, in the state of New York. It's long overdue that this great economic engine and sports initiative should find its home in the largest arena possible. And that is in Brooklyn and New York City and in New York State," Adams said during a press conference at the Barclays Center. "This bill has passed the Senate for several years. When I was a state senator we pushed this bill forward. The only blocking over the years has been in the Assembly."
Today, the Daily News reported that Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle is pushing for a final vote on the bill, this month, so some who oppose the measure can speak out. So far, the legalization has been blocked by legislators influenced by religious/women's/domestic violence groups (see 2013 advocacy here), but especially and a campaign against the MMA backers by an important union.

But momentum is growing.

Even if the law passes, I'd like to raise another concern, one not ventilated in previous debates but clearly an issue in Brooklyn.

 MMA audiences are most akin, I'd bet, to those who attend boxing and wrestling events. Evidence from past Barclays Center events shows that those crowds are among the most amped and rowdy, and that spreads into the neighborhood, even, in one case, connected to a horrific episode of sexual harassment/violence against a local resident.

So if it does pass, and MMA comes to Brooklyn, the Barclays Center and backers like Adams should very clearly explain what extra measures they will take.

Some of the battle

In March 2013, the Albany Times Union editorialized, "But why else should New York legalize a form of pugilism where almost anything goes and injuries can be quite serious?"

Backers, however, point out that the individual elements of MMA are recognized sports, and the real danger is underground, illegal matches. (Here's some other coverage from 2010 to 2014, from City & State.)

The underbelly of the battle involves unions. Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is trying to unionize Station Casinos, owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who own the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the major MMA league. It's part of a larger coalition, Unite Here, powerful in New York.

That may have receded. A Newsweek column last July cited two Culinary Union efforts that are no longer operative (though the UFC site below continues):
In addition, the Culinary Union has created an anti-UFC website called “Unfit For Children” [see cached site here] and a Twitter account called @FightFairMMA, attacking the UFC for alleged misogyny, homophobia and other anti-social behavior from its fighters. The UFC responded by creating its own site to expose the union's real agenda. But ultimately the beliefs and private behavior of its fighters can’t justify a ban on the sport itself, or football would have to be banned too.
That said, the union web site Zuffa Investor Alerts continues, as does the union effort at Station Casinos.

Zuffa is spending a lot of money on lobbying and campaign contributions, including, of course, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Oh, there was one actual bribe, not from Zuffa, but part of a sting operation.)

A 12/30/2015 article in the Auburn Citizen outlined the history of New York legalizing MMA in 1996--the first state--then rescinding it a year later, and the current push for passage. The departure of now-convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is seen as adding to the likelihood Assembly leaders will move the bill, given that his successor, Carl Heastie, supports MMA.

State Sen. Liz Krueger called the sport too dangerous. "I just don't know why the state of New York should want to encourage more young people to do great damage to themselves that will actually cost the people of New York state quite a bit of money over their lifetimes," she told the newspaper.