Exclusive: Interview with N.Y. State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, Part One

Bob Reilly

My column this week on SportsIllustrated.com deals with the legislative fight over MMA in New York State.  At the center of this battle, as you probably know, is Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who is a committed opponent of the sport.  Mr. Reilly and I are obviously on different sides of the issue, but he was gracious enough to take the time and explain his position, and for that I thank him.  Part one of our talk is below.  Check back for part two later today, and head on over to SI for UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner’s response to Reilly’s arguments against the sport.

You’ve said before that this isn’t your big issue, that you’re really into agriculture.  And yet this is the issue that’s gotten you the most attention.  Do you still feel like you’re reluctant opponent of MMA, because you seem to have embraced it rather eagerly of late.

That’s a tough question to answer.  What happens is, in the state legislature, with the hundreds of laws we vote on and a budget of maybe $120 billion with a $14 billion deficit and a worldwide financial crisis, there are many, many things we look at.  And when I said agriculture is one thing I’m interested in, that’s one thing.  I’m on the sub-committee on agriculture, but I’m also on the Racing and Wagering Committee, I’m on the Corporations Committee, so there are many other things I do besides this. 

But do I think this is an important thing?  Yes.  I think it’s going to be harmful to people.  I think it’s going to be harmful to our society and harmful to our economy.  So it’s one of things I address.  The legalization of MMA in New York State, I would say the only person pushing that or interested in it is Steve Englebright, the sponsor.  There aren’t a lot of other legislators pushing for it.  As I explored it further and became more educated on it, I changed my opinion and become more opposed to it.  

You say it’s going to be harmful to people.  How, specifically, will allowing live events of this sport in your state harm people?

Well, there’s different parts to that answer and when I answer one part of that question I extend it.  Let me give you one example of what I consider the problem and that’s the unsavory, sordid, corrupt process for legalization of this.  Just recently I asked an aide to look into the firing of the past chair of the State Athletic Commission, who was replaced by a woman (Melvina Lathan) who in fact had worked for [UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs] Marc Ratner, who now has a primary interest in Ultimate Fighting.  And this woman is going to be our primary regulator in New York State?  What is the connection and who brought her into this position of getting this chair?  

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Her statement upon getting the position was about how she supports MMA, which I found very suspect.  When I attended a meeting with her she demonstrated that she knew nothing about the sport.  And yet her support for the sport was one of the first things that she focused on after being appointed.  It’s that type of suspicious activity that really questions the sport.  I think we’re down the road toward the corruption in boxing, and what happened to the fighters, the corruption in the sport.

But how do you get from any of that to the conclusion that this sport is harmful to people?

Well one of the rules, do you know the five criteria for judging by Pride?  

For Pride?  Yes.

One of the criteria is damage to your opponent, okay?  There’s no other sport that I know of where damage to the opponent is a criteria for winning.  In fact, in every other sport, damage to an opponent, the rules work to avoid that, whether it’s boxing or wrestling or whatever.  Here, that’s one of the goals.  I don’t think you have to say much more than that.

But for one, that was Pride, which had several rule differences between itself and the UFC, and two, harming your opponent to the point of unconsciousness is one of the ways you win a boxing match, isn’t it?

It’s not a stated goal, though.  Even though I grew up a boxing fan and consider myself one still, though I’m not an active fan now, I compare what we should be doing to the difference between amateur boxing and professional boxing.  You know how much safer amateur boxing is?  A blow in amateur boxing is scored for being a clean blow, not by the force behind it or the damage it causes.  

I once had a man come to me and say, ‘My nephew is a jiu-jitsu fighter who does MMA, and he has an advantage because of that.  What I’m really interested in is the skill of how he puts his jiu-jitsu skills against a boxer or whomever.’  I asked him, if that’s the case, why don’t people want to watch just jiu-jitsu?  Why isn’t that as popular?  In other words, I strongly believe, you take the violence out of this and it would lose its appeal.  Is it very popular with a certain segment of the population?  Certainly.  Is collegiate wrestling as popular?  No.  

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How does the stated intent of the sport really change the effect that watching it has on people, who may or may not know the stated judging criteria?

First of all, I have looked at all the studies that show violence begetting violence.  And it’s clear that whether it’s in the media or in a live sporting event, violence does beget violence.  I’ve always felt it makes people immune to such violence.  But the types of things that you see in mixed martial arts are exactly what we don’t want to see in schools.  In the legislature here we are putting in laws all the time against bullying in schools and domestic violence.  And when you’re trying to stop that and then you’re legalizing the same type of violent activity it’s hard to believe that kids can distinguish one from the other.  

Most people I know find it offensive to see a woman grab another woman by the hair and knee her in the stomach.  I find that offensive.  Even the proponents of Ultimate Fighting indicate this is widespread among high school students, that they go into their basements and imitate this kind of stuff.  That’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent in other legislation.  Some of the responses I’ve gotten, mainly through blog sites, have been very on the edge with the kind of intense emotion this arouses in some people.  I think that the body of literature supports that viewing violence through various media does in fact generate violence.

When you talk about schools and domestic violence and relating that to a professional MMA bout, aren’t you purposely taking it out of context?  We wouldn’t want kids in classrooms imitating what they see in boxing or football either, would we?

No, let us take the case of boxing.  When I start viewing this now, more recently I’ve seen ads for boxing that really emphasize blows to the head and pictures of the face being pushed to the side, and I think that’s a bad idea to show kids, so I can’t deny that that’s also important.  I think if we could change the sorry history of boxing, we as a society would probably do it.  But as far as something like football, I don’t see anything wrong like that with a good hard tackle in football.  

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One blogger said to me, there are more deaths in fishing than there are in mixed martial arts.  But in those sports the purpose is not to do harm to your opponent and there’s a lot of difference between a good hard tackle in football and what happens in mixed martial arts.  You see the rule changes in football, that are criticized by some, to bring greater protection to players, especially quarterbacks, and that shows they are interested in protecting and not harming players.

Is it fair then to say you’re against combat sports in general, whether it’s MMA or boxing or kickboxing, since it all involves the intent to harm one’s opponent?

Absolutely not.  The only sport I’m against is mixed martial arts.  I have people come up to me just about on a daily basis, unsolicited, and say, ‘You’re doing the right thing.  This stuff is just brutal.’  People turn this on when they’re scanning through the channels, that’s their only exposure to it, and there are people kicking each other in the head.  As one of my aides saw recently, one guy punched the other guy, he was knocked out and falling to the ground, and as he fell the other guy kneed him in the head.  People see this and they are really offended and disgusted by it.  They see the violence in it.  They don’t come up to me and talk that way about boxing or football.

Isn’t it possible that they have that reaction because MMA is still fairly new and that’s what’s shocking?  You say violence has a desensitizing effect, so doesn’t it make sense that these people would not have that reaction to football or boxing, which they’ve grown up with?  In other words, how do you know it’s not just the novelty of MMA that people are responding to?

That’s possible.  People could eventually become immune to mixed martial arts.

Have people become immune to the violence in boxing?  Because boxing is two men punching each other in the head and body repeatedly.  That’s violent, obviously, and yet it’s legal and happens regularly in New York.

Have people become immune to the violence in boxing?  Maybe.  Our society and our standards of what’s acceptable change.  They haven’t for me, though.

To be continued…and it is, right here!