In November of 2011, a group of plaintiffs – including leading Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – filed suit in the Southern District of New York, seeking a declaration that New York State’s 14-year-old ban on professional MMA fights is unconstitutional, and an injunction banning its enforcement. The complaint raises multiple constitutional issues. It alleges, among other things:

  • That the ban – targeted as it is at the “violent message of MMA” – constitutes an impermissible content based restriction on First Amendment speech;
  • That the ban is unconstitutionally overbroad, as it prohibits not just professional fights, but also “advancing” or “profiting from” professional MMA — an odd restriction, given the lack of enforcement against the “MMA World Expo” held every year in Manhattan, or the UFC-sponsored “viewing parties” in Madison Square Garden;
  • That the ban is unconstitutionally vague, since it prohibits professional MMA fights, but not professional fights in the individual martial arts on which it is based — as well as the fact that the ban does not prohibit amateur MMA competitions, but the New York State Athletic Commission has said that it will use the ban to close such events;
  • That the ban violates the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, given that New York allows many sports which are arguably more dangerous than MMA, such as boxing, hockey, rodeos . . . and, of course, football; and
  • That the ban is irrational and in violation of the Due Process Clause, given that it bans live professional MMA, but not amateur events or televised events.

The detailed complaint also delves extensively into the history of MMA, and the sport’s response to efforts to make it safer, rather than to restrict it outright. New York’s ban is contrasted with New Jersey’s attempts to regulate fights, as well as UFC’s adoption of safety procedures during its fights. The positive messages of MMA also receive great attention, often with (presumably unintentional) humorous results — when making the point that the MMA does not promote violence, the complaint quotes a professional fighter: “I entered this sport for the skill, the challenge and brains it takes to succeed in the arena of combat.”

Whether or not the UFC will succeed in its suit remains to be seen. But the suit’s existence raises at least one interesting point in the sports law context, even outside the constitutional violations it alleges. There are very few – if any – instances of sports receiving an outright professional ban on the state level. When competitions are forbidden, the restriction usually arises at the municipal level. The few exceptions appear to be bans on competitions involving animals, such as dog racing or – more controversially – dog fighting. Athletic endeavors which involve humans alone do not normally receive scrutiny from states. MMA is unique in that regard.

The complaint implicitly questions the tendency we have to discredit new or unfamiliar sports for the very things we laud in more familiar sports. It is easy to question how the violence in MMA – and the effects of that violence – compares to that of boxing. What is more challenging is comparing the violence in MMA against violence in sports that dominate the current sports landscape — including football and hockey.

However, increased oversight is not out of the question. A March, 2012 filing in this case by the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, states that “Indeed, increased legislative and regulatory attention to sports such as boxing, football and hockey may well be coming.” Does that mean that it is possible that the New York State legislature could make such things as hockey fights or helmet-to-helmet hits in football chargeable assaults? It will be interesting to follow this case as it continues to be litigated.