Monday, August 16, 2010

Mixed Martial Arts, Fighters Rights, and an Enforced Muhammad Ali Act?

For those who believe that a society and all its components are best understood through its economic system, we need to examine external regulation if we are to understand and predict future worker-employer relationships. This is true for any industry, sporting or otherwise, including mixed martial arts (MMA).

Those familiar with combat sports history know that boxing is among the most corrupt sports in the modern era. While all sports include dimensions of constructed spectacle, boxing’s track record in manipulating theatrical drama is particularly bothersome. The backdrop to boxing mega-fights, dramatized press conferences and other pre-fight hype includes a plethora of unknown, underpaid fighters, sacrificed in manufactured mismatches that build prospects’ reputations.

As a combat sport promoted through gladiator type pageantry, MMA inevitably follows a good portion of boxing’s promotional structure. Fighters typically build their reputation at the local level in smaller shows, working their way through modest paydays in organizations that have varying levels of oversight. The sacrifices of today are deemed worthwhile in hopes that financial dreams are realized in a larger organization tomorrow. As noted previously, these hopes and dreams are rarely met, and the stories of unknown fighters remain, unknown.

The process for every fighter is long and arduous – physically taxing on one’s body, emotions, pocketbook, and social network. In working through the process, fighters incessantly go through what Spencer (2009) calls “body callusing” – “whereby the fighter takes his/her body as a site of action and aggressively seeks…to harden the body and turn it into a weapon” (p. 127) that can distribute and endure pain.

Because MMA has been institutionalized for under two decades, we are still unable to tell the long-term health effects its training and competitions have on participants. But considering MMA’s physical demands, it is appropriate to ask how fighters will be protected in the years to come by external regulating bodies, if they are protected at all.

Federal Regulation or Not?

Central to this issue is whether or not industries should be regulated by the free market, states, or federal government. Under the Reagan-Bush era, governmental regulation was defined as a hindrance to individual rights and private enterprise. Essentially, this political ideology professed that entrepreneurs, their innovation and business drive should not be stymied by oppressive federal oversight. The flip side to this political paradigm is that an unbridled free market without regulation fuels brutal business practices where business owners act dishonorably, exploiting labor as they market their product.

With regard to MMA, regulation in the United States materializes on a state by state basis. This was accomplished first in 2000 in New Jersey, just before Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White took over the helm of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2001. Since then, the UFC has actively sought regulation, serving as MMA’s principle lobbyists across the United States and selected cities beyond U.S. borders.

A key topic in the push for regulation is fighter safety, more specifically, how the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat” minimize major sporting injuries. This is one of two publicly debated issues (the other being the glorification of violence). Lost in the public discourse, however, is how regulation protects fighters’ financial interests.

Maher (2010) provides a few notable examples rarely discussed across the MMA media landscape. California, for instance, does not allow individuals who have been licensed within the MMA industry within the past two years to serve on its athletic commission, thereby deterring conflicts of interests between commission members and private MMA organizations. Nevada’s commission requires a “bout agreement” in advance of matches which insures that fighters are compensated their promised purse (i.e., payment).

“Deal content,” or compensation, on the other hand, is currently not regulated. Thus, fighter pay is essentially determined by each individual fighter’s bargaining power, which is contingent upon his/her fight record, management team, and especially public notoriety. In short, there is very little, if anything, in the way of state regulation that assists fighters in advocating for what they may define as fair pay and other occupational rights (e.g., broad-based health insurance). Federally, occupational rights specific to MMA are non-existent.

Bolstering Regulation Via a Federally Enforced Muhammad Ali Act

As stated by Varney (2009), Congress passed the Professional Boxing Safety Act (“Safety Act”) into law in 1996 to help clean up the sport while providing federal oversight. The act requires that (1) all boxing matches are supervised by state athletic commissions; (2) all boxers go through a physical examination by a certified physician to determine his/her physical fitness; (3) an ambulance and/or medics with proper medical equipment be on sight; and (4) a physician be present at ringside.

The Safety Act clearly has a focus on physical safety and is more or less mimicked in the MMA industry. The Safety Act, however, does not address in any way the potential financial exploitation of fighters. Thus, the Safety Act was augmented in 2000 with the Muhammad Ali Act (“Ali Act”), which calls:

  • To protect the rights and welfare of professional boxers on an interstate basis by preventing certain exploitative, oppressive, and unethical business practices;

  • To assist State boxing commissions in their efforts to provide more effective public oversight of the sport; and

  • To promote honorable competition in professional boxing and enhance the overall integrity of the industry (Varney, 2009, p. 288).
Perhaps most importantly, the Ali Act also requires that bout information be provided to the State Attorney General upon request as a means to further “discourage a promoter from engaging in unfair or unsavory business dealings” (Varney, 2009, p. 292).

Varney’s work explains how the Ali Act would benefit MMA fighters. For example, boxing matches on Indian reservations must follow Ali Act regulations. MMA matches on Indian reservations are entitled much more leeway, often allowing for matches without proper medical testing and unequal matchmaking (e.g., unreasonable weight differences between fighters).

Furthermore, Varney argues that arbitrary/subjective enhanced bonuses provided to select fighters by MMA promotions would be lessened if these financial rewards were properly and publicly disclosed. While these arbitrary bonuses help the selected fighters, they obviously do not help the majority of other fighters competing on respective fight cards. And being subjectively distributed, the bonuses could point to favoritism on the part of the promotion.

A properly administered Ali Act in MMA would also insure that title fights and ongoing employment were based on objective rankings (which would be based on fight records and opponents fought). This would help prevent deserving fighters from being released or “buried” by promotions if they expressed disagreement with certain managerial practices. And finally, a properly enforced Ali Act in MMA would standardize minimum bout agreements.

Of course, even if the Ali Act was applied to MMA, it would change nothing unless it was enforced. Title IX is a perfect example. While Title IX mandated gender equity across all sectors of educational institutions, its impact was not felt until universities began enforcing it. Enforcement for Title IX only came with threatened legal action. In MMA, fighters currently lack the power and solidarity to take such action.

Federalization and Unionization

Fighters could be empowered if MMA was legally sanctioned in all 50 states, and done so in standardized form. Maher (2010) worries that because some states currently regulate MMA with stricter guidelines than others, MMA promotions (particularly those on the fiscal bubble) may “race to the bottom” by holding events in states where regulations are the most relaxed (i.e., cheapest), thereby increasing the risk to fighters. This could also apply on Indian reservations, where regulations appear the most lenient and least costly economically for promotions.

Unionization is also relevant here. Maher writes, “Existing state regulation does little to regulate the terms of the deals between promoters, managers, and fighters…. Like laborers elsewhere, MMA athletes face significant bargaining disadvantages relative to promoters, in terms of financial and legal resources, education, and alternative employment” (p. 41).

A fighters union could help push for minimum compensation and other worker rights, such as extended health insurance and initial planning into some kind of pension plan. The alternative outlook is increased numbers of aged-out veterans who continue to fight paycheck-to-paycheck, snared in by the sport’s onerous fiscal structure (see for example,
Jonathan Snowden’s recent piece on Jens Pulver).

A drive towards unionization, however, cannot materialize until a number of other legal conditions are ironed out. As Maher explains, if MMA fighters are considered independent contractors, as opposed to company employees, unionization is not an option. However, when fighters are under exclusive promotional contracts (meaning they cannot fight for another organization) and are engaged in “an essential part of the [promoter’s] normal operations” (p. 43) (i.e., fighting), fighters stand a good chance of being defined as employees, who could then advocate for unionization.

What does the future pose for fighter rights in MMA?

Maher (2010) speculates that fans may be inclined to see increased federal regulation since our current economic crisis is blamed heavily on a lack of federal oversight. Previously,
I noted that most fans would not seriously support fighter rights since improved fighter rights means higher company costs, and in turn, higher costs for fans to watch MMA, and I believe this to still be the case.

In the era of Obama and the President’s extremely minor push towards expanded health care (Clinton’s health care reform proposal was actually stronger), the conservative backlash to federal regulation has been extremely strong. Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, bank bailouts, and high unemployment rates, the American public’s frustration with “big government” continues to fester. Unfortunately, if calls for government to “stay out of our lives” continues, this allows the free market to run unchecked, leaving the average worker with less leverage, and fighters more exploitable.

That is unless, someone, somewhere, with significant influence takes action.

Non-internet References:

Maher, B. S. (2010). Understanding and regulating the sport of mixed martial arts. Hastings Communication & Entertainment Law Journal, 1-43.

Spencer, D. C. (2009). Habit(us), body techniques and body callusing: an ethnography of mixed martial arts. Body & Society, 15 (4), 119-143.

Varney, G. (2009). Fighting for respect: MMA’s struggle for acceptance and how the Muhammad Ali Act would give it a sporting chance. West Virginia Law Review, 112, 269-305.

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