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Americans really love fighting. On Saturday night, many TV viewers flocked to see a mixed martial arts bout between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis. UFC on Fox 2 — the second prime-time MMA event on network television — scored more than twice as many viewers in the 18-49 demographic as any other show that evening.
But not everyone is fan. Just a day before Fox experienced its ratings success, New York’s state government told a federal judge why grownups pounding each other was a dangerous spectacle and why its nearly 15-year-old ban on mixed martial arts should be upheld. In the process, New York has presented a bold call against any judicial activism.
The move was in reaction to fists thrown by Zuffa, UFC’s majority owner, in federal court.
On the heels of Fox’s first UFC prime time event in November, Zuffa filed a lawsuit against New York for violating the rights of the league and its many fighters. In the complaint, Zuffa told the stories of its many fighters and argued they had constitutional protections to fulfill their livelihoods and express themselves in their choice of entrance music, battle clothing, and conduct in the ring (known as an Octagon).
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If the legal sphere bears any resemblance to MMA, New York has responded by going into a takedown defense known as a “sprawl,” an effort to deny their opponent a chance to sweep their legs and assume a superior position. The lawsuit deals with interesting questions like whether fighting can be classified as free speech under the First Amendment. But New York is leaving aside that issue for now, focusing a federal court’s attention on the equally important issue of whether its legislature had a “rational basis” to pass in the first place a law in 1997 that prohibited “professional matches” where contestants are “delivering kicks, punches or blows of any kind to the body of an opponent.”
Does the statute violate the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution?
In its case, Zuffa said the ban was an impingement on civil rights. The league’s owner also pushed the argument that MMA is safer than many other sporting events.
New York says that even if it’s true that MMA has evolved from its no-holds-barred origins, and that the UFC has crafted rules that protect the safety and health of its fighters, the only thing that matters is whether there was a rationale behind the law’s adoption at the time of its passing. To this end, New York quotes various medical experts who testified before the NY legislature in 1997 about the dangers of the sport, such as concussions, hemorrhages, lacerations and fractures. The state also says that lawmakers wanted to send a message to young people that the brutality of the sport had no place in a civilized society.
From there, New York tells federal judge Kimba Wood she needs to back off.
A memorandum to the court quotes a 60-year-old Supreme Court ruling that said, “The day is gone when this Court uses the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.”
That ruling in the 1965 Supreme Court decision, Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., was a brushback against previous high court rulings that invalidated all sorts of progressive statutes regulating worker conditions.
If the ban on mixed martial arts fighting is outdated, New York says that the democratically-elected branches of government will eventually rectify it. Any decision otherwise would invite too much scrutiny by courts, says the state’s attorney general. The memorandum says:
“The Plaintiffs’ desired rule, which would have federal courts reexamining the validity of statutes every time a challenger asserted that a once-rational classification had outlived or failed to achieve its purpose, is at odds with the principle of judicial restraint articulated by the Supreme Court.”
Here’s New York’s memorandum in support of a motion to dismiss a core part of Zuffa’s claims:
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