Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Athletic Commission
When the powers that be at UFC wake up on Christmas morning, they’ll revel in a sleigh laden with gifts from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Athletic Commission. Boxing fans and New York’s boxing promoters will find a lump of coal beneath the Christmas tree.
Previous articles by this writer have catalogued shortcomings at the New York State Athletic Commission. It’s a matter of record that an investigation by the Inspector General of the State of New York found that the commission has been plagued by incompetence and corruption for years. Tom Hoover (the most recent NYSAC chairperson) and Melvina Lathan (his predecessor) were both forced out of office as the Inspector General’s investigation progressed. The Inspector General’s report also noted “a lack of appropriate engagement and oversight” by NYSAC commissioners John Signorile and Edwin Torres.
Meanwhile, David Berlin (the NYSAC’s highly respected executive director who’d been brought in to clean up the mess) was dismissed on May 13, 2016, in part because he refused to put a political agenda ahead of properly doing his job. Berlin’s termination came one month after Governor Cuomo signed a bill passed by the state legislature that lifted a 1997 ban on mixed martial arts competitions in New York. The new law also imposes insurance requirements on the promoters of professional combat sports events that are so out of line with economic reality that they threaten the existence of most fight cards in New York.
All of this has drawn the attention of federal law enforcement officials. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is exploring whether the Inspector General’s office failed to release its report on the NYSAC in a timely manner and also whether the Cuomo administration improperly influenced the Inspector General’s office in conjunction with the content of the report.
In addition, several witnesses who were interviewed by federal prosecutors in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York say that they were asked about the process by which the legislation legalizing mixed martial arts and instituting the insurance requirement was enacted and whether there might have been an intention to favor UFC to the detriment of boxing.
The past few years have seen a series of high-profile criminal prosecutions aimed at some of New York’s most influential political power brokers. Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and Dean Skelos, Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, were indicted by federal grand juries and found guilty at trial (Silver on seven counts of abusing his office for more than $4 million in personal gain; Skelos and his son on eight counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy).
More recently, on November 22, 2016, Joseph Percoco (a close friend and former top aide to Governor Cuomo) was indicted by a grand jury on federal corruption charges in conjunction with a bribery and bid-rigging scandal for which he is alleged to have received at least $315,000 in bribes.
In each instance, the prosecution was spearheaded by Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. On November 30, it was announced that Donald Trump had asked Bharara to stay on the job in the new administration and that Bharara had accepted the offer. Thus, the federal investigations as they relate to Governor Cuomo’s office and the New York State Athletic Commission are likely to continue.
The point person in the effort to rehabilitate the NYSAC is Tony Giardina. The New York Department of State has oversight responsibilities with regard to the commission. Giardina was executive deputy secretary of state until August of this year, when he resigned to become the NYSAC’s interim executive director (a step down on the organizational chart).
Giardina is a competent, politically savvy Cuomo loyalist with good administrative skills who seems sincere is his efforts to strengthen the NYSAC. In recent months, he has orchestrated expanded training seminars for the commission staff and worked with the medical advisory board to update medical protocols. In November, Nitin Sethi succeeded Barry Jordan as the NYSAC’s chief medical officer, which is widely regarded as a step in the right direction.
But there’s a learning curve to becoming an effective government regulator of boxing and mixed martial arts. Giardina, by his own admission, is not knowledgeable with regard to combat sports. And in too many instances, he appears to be operating within a politics-first environment. He’s trying to stop the bleeding, improve performance and clean things up at the NYSAC. But he has to do it within the boundaries of Andrew Cuomo’s political agenda.
And he has to do it at a time when the legalization of professional mixed martial arts in New York is placing new responsibilities on a commission that was having trouble handling what it was already charged to do.
Professional mixed martial arts made its long-awaited return to New York on November 12, when more than 20,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden for an eleven-bout card headlined by Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez. UFC 205, as the event was called, generated a live gate of $17.7 million, a record for both UFC and the Garden.
The NYSAC ceded much of the control over UFC 205 to UFC. State officials appeared at times to be little more than cheerleaders for the promotion. Four on-site Department of State communications personnel retweeted UFC and Madison Square Garden tweets on the New York State Department of State Twitter account throughout the night. There were 23 such retweets.
“I feel like we’re working for UFC,” one on-site NYSAC employee said.
Mixed martial arts is now getting special treatment from the NYSAC. Under rules and regulations adopted by the commission in August, many restrictions that should be applicable to the oversight of all combat sports apply only to boxing, not MMA.
Moreover, UFC, which acknowledges having spent millions of dollars on lobbying and having made millions of dollars in campaign contributions to New York political interests, seems to be getting favorable treatment vis-a-vis its direct competitors.
One of the things that made UFC’s November 12 fight card at Madison Square Garden special and generated a great deal of publicity was the fact that UFC 205 was the first professional mixed martial arts event in New York in two decades.
But here’s the rub: On September 1, the first day that mixed martial arts promoters could be licensed under the new law and the first day that they could apply for mixed martial arts dates, Bellator MMA told the New York State Athletic Commission that it wanted to promote an MMA fight card at Barclay’s Center on October 29. The commission refused to approve the date.
Why the refusal?
Laz Benitez, a spokesperson for the Department of State, says the request was denied pursuant to Section 207.15(a) of the NYSAC’s rules and regulations, which states that licensed promoters must apply to the commission for the approval of a date on which a professional boxing or mixed martial arts event is scheduled at least 60 days prior to the date unless otherwise authorized by the Commission.
Bellator’s request was made 58 days prior to the proposed date.
But here’s the catch: Bellator couldn’t apply for an MMA promotional license before September 1. And more to the point, the 60-day requirement is waived as a matter of course for most promotions. It exists so the commission has time to properly assign NYSAC personnel to fight cards in the event of multiple shows on the same night, which wasn’t the case here, and also to ensure that low-level promoters have time to put the puzzle pieces together to properly promote a show. Bellator is a major promoter.
A more credible reason for Bellator being denied the October 29 date is that UFC wanted to be the first company to promote an MMA card in New York under the new law, and the political power brokers who control the NYSAC from above wanted UFC to have its way. That, according to sources, is what Bellator’s lobbyists were told when they went to the powers that be. Meanwhile, whatever angst Barclays Center might have felt over losing the proposed October 29 Bellator show evaporated when UFC announced in early November that UFC 209 will be contested at Barclays on February 11, 2017.
And there’s another, more serious problem percolating just beneath the surface with regard to MMA.
On April 14, 2016, Governor Cuomo’s office issued a press release heralding the return of mixed martial arts to New York. In part, the press release read, “Mixed martial arts contests will be supervised either directly by the New York State Athletic Commission or by a sanctioning entity approved by the Commission.” On August 31, Jim Leary, counsel for the NYSAC, elaborated on this third-party supervision of MMA, saying that it would apply only to certain amateur cards.
But, as asserted by boxing promoter Lou DiBella, “Right now, you have a situation where some small promoters are putting on MMA shows using unknown fighters, paying them under the table and calling them amateur shows. That way, they can get around the state insurance regulations and a whole lot more. You couldn’t do that with boxing because amateur boxing is more closely regulated than amateur MMA and amateur boxing is so obviously different from professional boxing.”
This relates to an issue that has shut down boxing in New York since September 1 and is threatening to wipe out club fights in New York for the foreseeable future: Insurance.
The law legalizing mixed martial arts that was passed earlier this year contained a trade-off. In order to appeal to legislators who opposed the expansion of combat sports, Governor Cuomo engineered the insertion of a provision in the bill that requires all promoters of boxing matches and other martial arts competitions to provide medical insurance or another form of financial guarantee acceptable to the NYSAC with a minimum coverage of one million dollars per fighter. This million dollars would be used to cover medical, surgical and hospital care for the treatment of life-threatening brain injuries in situations where an identifiable causal link exists between the fighter’s participation in a fight and the life-threatening brain injury. For all other fight-related medical costs, a $50,000 insurance policy is required. This insurance requirement took effect on September 1.
The million-dollar insurance requirement is not practical. It was a classic case of leap before you look. The cost of premiums will make it impossible to promote most fight cards in New York on a cost-efficient basis.
UFC was able to secure a state-approved policy for UFC 205 through AIG, its regular insurance carrier in Nevada. But the cost of the policy exceeded $40,000, more than eight times the amount that boxing promoters are accustomed to paying for medical insurance in New York.
Moreover, as autumn passed, no insurance carrier had submitted a proposed policy satisfactory to the State of New York insofar as the million-dollar minimum coverage for boxing was concerned. That led DiBella to declare, “It’s unthinkable that this law was passed when no policy was available. How do you enact a law where there is no legal way for an industry to abide by it? Something incomprehensible went on here.”
Meanwhile, boxing disappeared from New York.
On October 3, Star Boxing, Joe DeGuardia’s promotional company, announced that it was canceling fight cards previously slated to take place in New York for the rest of the year. “Currently there isn’t any insurance policy approved by the State,” DeGuardia’s statement read. “Therefore, the cost is currently irrelevant as there is no legal way to hold a professional boxing match in New York as the insurance required by the new regulation cannot be purchased at the present time. Star Boxing plans to move its events to venues outside of the State of New York until, when, and if this situation is corrected.”
Golden Boy Promotions and Roc Nation also abandoned plans to promote fight cards in New York.
DiBella weighed in further as follows: “I have been extremely active promoting shows in New York. But at this time, I have moved all of my shows to other states for the foreseeable future. I couldn’t do a show in New York if I wanted to, as no insurance required by the new law and regulations currently exists. The State of New York has, at least temporarily, crippled the boxing industry. They are depriving young New York athletes, as well as managers and promoters, of their livelihoods. This is doing nothing to improve the health and safety of fighters. In fact the reverse is true. Local fighters are forced to leave the state to fight in other jurisdictions. None of them have the insurance requirements in a law, supposedly written to allow MMA in our state, that disproportionately affects and hurts boxers and the boxing business. More importantly, the majority of these states require minimal medical safeguards and testing. The State of New York has actually detrimentally affected fighter safety.”
Then, on October 28, DiBella issued a press release that read, “DiBella Entertainment has released its dates on hold with the New York State Athletic Commission through the end of the year, effectively ending the boxing program in New York until at least 2017. This announcement is a direct result of New York’s new insurance requirements, which have made it impossible for promoters to purchase the coverage necessary to do an event in the state, and the New York State Athletic Commission’s failure to use its authority to alter the requirements.”
Fans of the sweet science have now gone four months without a professional boxing card in New York.
DiBella hopes to end this drought. He’s now planning to co-promote a card at Barclays Center with Mayweather Promotions on January 14, 2017, and believes that, because Mayweather Promotions is a Nevada-based corporation, it can get a policy from a Nevada insurer approved by the State of Nevada that will be acceptable to New York. DiBella estimates that the premium for this policy would exceed $40,000 and suggests that Barclays would defray half the cost.
As an alternative, the New York Department of Financial Services recently approved the basics of a policy with United States Fire Insurance Company as the carrier that, if finalized, would address the million-dollar insurance minimum, carry a deductible of $500 per fighter and cost $830 per fighter. This policy grew out of an insurance program created by The Wellington Group and SportsInsurance.com
The Wellington Group is a small New York City insurance broker that was founded in 2015. Its online description reads in part, “The Wellington Group is leading the industry in offering insurance services for our clients who are in the cannabis business.” Joe Charles is its principal and CEO.
SportsInsurance.com facilitated Wellington’s dealings with Crum & Forster, the parent company of United States Fire insurance Company. On December 15, Mark DiPerno, president of SportsInsurance.com, told this writer, “The surprise factor made this more difficult. The New York State legislature went ahead and produced this million-dollar requirement but neglected to inform the insurers that it was coming, so everyone was left flat-footed. No one was working toward resolution of the issue. The first problem we had when it came to our attention was finding an insurer who was even willing to go down this road.”
To that, Laurence Cole, whose company brokers insurance policies for combat sports throughout the country, adds, “I can broker a medical insurance policy with $50,000 coverage per fighter with a $500 deductible per fighter and a $100,000 death benefit per fighter and it will cost the promoter about $4,100 for a 10-bout card. Add on New York’s million-dollar requirement for life-threatening brain injuries and you’re looking at a minimum of four times that amount. We told the commission in 2015 when the matter was first discussed that this would be cost-prohibitive for most boxing cards in New York; that it would end all the small fight cards and put most small promoters out of business in New York.”
There will be other costs as well.
“Certain things still have to be established,” DiPerno acknowledges. “We’ll need complete baseline testing before every fight to ascertain whether a pre-existing condition contributed to a problem.”
That would add to the promoter’s costs since, under the recently passed New York legislation, the promoter rather than the state now pays for fighter medical examinations. The promoter will also be responsible for all medical costs that fall within the deductible.
Thus, Lou DiBella says, “The January 14 fight card [at Barclays Center] will happen. The bigger problem is that the issue isn’t solved. Broadway Boxing [DiBella’s New York City club fight series] is out of business. Joe DeGuardia’s shows are out of business. Local fighters who would normally be developed in New York are out of business and have nowhere to go for fights. Dmitry Salita [Star of David Promotions] has taken his shows out of New York. I want to know how this happens; a law that, in effect, stops boxing in the state. Why and how? Who did this? Something’s not right.”
Other promoters are in accord:
- Joe DeGuardia: “It is ridiculous that our elected officials have not corrected this absurdity. It is a travesty that deprives New York boxers, as well as managers, trainers, promoters, and venue employees of their livelihoods.”
- Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions: “It’s a huge concern. I hope it changes.”
- Bob Arum: “Boxing is in a crisis position in the State of New York, and we must find a way to resolve the insurance issue before we can go back to presenting boxing events to the fans in New York.”
- Richard Schaefer: “I think anybody in boxing would agree that it’s a bit of a mess there.”
On November 16, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams joined the fray, declaring, “Too many people pass legislation and are focused on the paper it’s written on instead of the people who are impacted by it. New York State is the Empire State, where we build empires instead of destroying them, and we are destroying the empire of boxing in New York. That cannot happen. We are going to mobilize and move in the right direction.”
But there’s no guarantee that a solution will be forthcoming. On December 16, Tony Giardina told this writer, “I’m working with what we have. I’ve heard that the smaller cards will have a difficult time or that it will be impossible to promote them. But institutions adapt, and the end result is often less bad than the most dire predictions. I don’t see any change in the million-dollar requirement until there is a solid factual basis for making a change. We’re not there yet on the data.”
New York State Assembly Leader Joseph Morelle, who co-sponsored the bill to legalize professional MMA in New York, told Amy Dash of BloodyElbow.com that he would face an uphill battle in the state legislature if he tried to lower the insurance requirement. Instead, he pointed to a provision in the law that provides, “The commission may from time to time, promulgate regulations to adjust the amount of such minimum [insurance] limits.”
In Morelle’s words, “The state athletic commission could now say, ‘Well, this is not affordable for small promoters, and so we are going to make an adjustment to the coverage.’ That is allowed in the law, and hopefully they will begin to have that conversation.”
But Jim Leary, counsel for the NYSAC, points to the last section of the law, which states, “Within 12 months of the effective date of this section, the state athletic commission shall make any recommendations to the governor, temporary president of the senate, and speaker of the assembly regarding legislative changes which may be necessary to effectuate the purpose and intent of this chapter, including, but not limited to, appropriate adjustments to the insurance requirements contained therein.”
In Leary’s view, this indicates that the NYSAC can’t unilaterally adjust the million-dollar insurance minimum.
Meanwhile, DiBella declares, “Andrew Cuomo and legislators from both parties in Albany got the campaign contributions from UFC that they wanted. I don’t think there’s a coincidence that a law to enable UFC to be legal in New York passed and that in effect killed boxing. I don’t believe in accidents. I don’t hate on MMA and UFC, and I don’t begrudge what they’re trying to do. But in effect, they put an entire sport out of business. Apparently 2.2 million dollars of lobbying money and countless campaign contributions can cripple small businesses to the advantage of one multi-billion dollar company. Apparently, alleged health and safety concerns can mask the desire to minimize competition and a fair marketplace. I hope that this becomes evident to United States Attorney Preet Bharara.”
DiBella’s reference to the health and safety concerns of the powers that be as “alleged” is not entirely without merit.
The statute passed by the state legislature requires the promoters of professional combat sports in New York to provide insurance for medical, surgical and hospital care with a minimum limit of one million dollars “for the treatment of a life-threatening brain injury sustained in a program operated under the control of such licensed promoter, where an identifiable causal link exists between the professional licensee’s participation in such program and the life-threatening brain injury.”
However, the rules and regulations recently enacted by the NYSAC appear to contravene the statute. More specifically, the commission has chosen to define “life-threatening brain injury” as “an acute brain injury that, in the opinion of the professional licensee’s treating physician, WOULD result in the death of the professional licensee if left untreated.” (Emphasis added.)
Again, the statute says “life-threatening.” The rules and regulations promulgated by the NYSAC define “life-threatening” in a manner that, on its face, is inconsistent with the statute. And the insurance policy recently approved by the New York State Department of Financial Services tracks the language of the rules and regulations, not the statute.
Paul Edelstein is the lead attorney for the family of Magomed Abdusalamov, who suffered horrifying brain damage as a consequence of his participation in a November 2, 2013, fight at Madison Square Garden. The Abdusalamov tragedy set in motion the Inspector General’s investigation of the NYSAC, which in turn led to a report by the Inspector General that detailed incompetence and corruption at the commission.
Edelstein makes it clear just how much of a con the million-dollar insurance minimum is.
“One million dollars is a nice big round number,” Edelstein says. “But it’s illusory. The chances of a policy being triggered to pay off above the $50,000-limit are slim. What you’re going to have in most instances is, the carrier will deny coverage. If there are $90,000 worth of tests and no surgery, it won’t be covered above $50,000 under the rules and regulations because the fighter survived without surgery. And if surgery is necessary, the carrier will say, ‘Well, you don’t know that the patient would have died without the surgery.’ There have been instances of a serious subdural hemotoma where the patient has survived without surgery. So suppose the doctor says, ‘He might live without surgery; he might die without surgery. I just don’t know.’ The million-dollar requirement we’re talking about now is close to useless.”
Tony Giardina characterizes Edelstein’s statement as “inflammatory.” When asked, “What should have been done differently with regard to the insurance issue?” Giardina answers, “The state athletic commission is responsible for carrying out the mandate of the state legislature, and we’re doing that in the best possible way. The commission is part of an administration. I don’t see anything else that the commission should have done.”
But let’s get real. If someone has lung cancer, the doctors can’t say with certainty that the patient will die from it. But they treat the cancer. Can any sane person fathom a medical insurance policy that only covers treatment for lung cancer if the doctors say that, without treatment, the patient will die as a consequence of the cancer?
To make the point again: The recently-enacted New York statute does not give the NYSAC the right to weaken the insurance requirement by disingenuously narrowing the definition of “life-threatening” to the point where many life-threatening situations aren’t covered. Whether or not the commission can unilaterally lower the million-dollar insurance minimum itself is an open issue.
The justification often cited by Governor Cuomo, state legislators and NYSAC personnel for their decisions with regard to these issues is twofold: 1. The advent of MMA will boost the economy of the State of New York, and 2. We’re doing this for the health and safety of the fighters. But given the havoc wreaked, one has to consider the possibility that their real motivation hasn’t been how much money MMA will contribute to the economy of the State of New York but rather how much money UFC has contributed to campaign committees working on behalf of Andrew Cuomo and various New York State legislators.
On December 16, Giardina was asked, “To what extent is Governor Cuomo aware of the insurance issue?”
“He’s very aware of it as far as we know,” Giardina answered.
And regarding the health and safety of fighters, one might consider the thoughts of UFC cover girl Ronda Rousey, one of the most proficient and famous mixed martial artists in the world.
Talking about her trademark arm bar maneuver, Rousey has explained in her autobiography, “My Fight, Your Fight,” “When you do the arm bar, the aim is to put so much pressure on the person’s arm that you pop the joint out of the socket. You can feel it when it pops. It’s like ripping the leg off a Thanksgiving turkey. You hear it pop-pop-pop, then squish.”
Then, describing her use of an arm bar against Miesha Tate, Rousey recounted, “Pulling her arm straight, I arched back until I felt the squish, her ligaments snapping between my legs. She was still trying to escape. I grabbed her hand and pushed it over the side of my hip, forcing her elbow to go more than 90 degrees in the wrong direction. I ripped off muscles from her bone and tendons. With a vice on her injured arm, I sat up to punch her in the face with my other hand. With her elbow fully dislocated, there was nothing holding her in that position anymore except the pain and her fear of me.”
So much for the health and safety of fighters.
On top of that, Lou DiBella states, “The last two catastrophic head injuries that occurred in New York boxing matches were directly related to mistakes by state-appointed officials and failures by political appointees and their personnel to abide by their already existing protocols and directives. Fix yourselves. Don’t scapegoat athletes and a sport that is ingrained in the history and fabric of your state.”
In theory, policy decisions at the NYSAC are made by its commissioners and then implemented by the commission staff. Traditionally, the NYSAC had three commissioners (one of whom was designated as chairperson). The April 2016 legislation that legalized professional mixed martial arts competition in New York increased the number of NYSAC commissioners from three to five.
NYSAC commissioners are appointed by the governor subject to approval by the State Senate.
Eight months after they were created, the two new commissioner slots have yet to be filled, which says something about Andrew Cuomo’s priorities as they relate to the NYSAC. Two of the commissioners, John Signorile and Edwin Torres, are serving pursuant to terms that expired one and two years ago, respectively. The third sitting commissioner, Ndidi Massay, was appointed in June of this year and is currently serving as interim chairperson.
The NYSAC says that everyone at the commission cares deeply about the health and safety of fighters. On Saturday, October 8, the commission held a seminar on medical issues that was attended by a dozen ring physicians. The seminar began at 9:30 a.m. and ran until 5 p.m.
How many of the three commissioners sat in for the entire seminar?
One of the doctors in attendance says that Ndidi Massay was there “for the last hour or two,” while John Signorile and Edwin Torres weren’t there at all.
On Saturday, October 15, the NYSAC conducted a seminar for inspectors that ran from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Massay and Torres did not attend.
On the evening of Wednesday, November 2, the NYSAC held a preparation session at the Renzo Gracie Gym for deputy commissioners and inspectors who’d been assigned to the November 12 UFC event at Madison Square Garden. The session lasted approximately 90 minutes. None of the three commissioners was there.
On fight night, Massay and Signorile arrived at Madison Square Garden after UFC 205 had begun. Torres didn’t attend the show at all.
A look at a video of the November 9, 2016, meeting of the NYSAC is instructive. It can be viewed here.
Kim Sumbler, the commission’s MMA project coordinator, proposed implementing a multi-tiered pay scale for referees and judges on MMA fights based on purse amount. At present, some jurisdictions have a pay scale keyed to the size of the venue. Others pay a flat rate.
Massay said, “I’m a little concerned about creating policy like this. No one else does it on purses. Are we gonna be, you know, what’s the public gonna think? Let’s take the haters out there. How are we gonna get criticized on this? What are they gonna say? I wanna be prepared for any negative backlash.”
At that point, Massay was reminded that there was a live video stream of the meeting.
Then Tony Giardina observed, “If you think about the parties who are going to be interested here, it’s pretty much the promoters because they have to pay the fees and you have the officials themselves. The general public isn’t going to be even necessarily aware. I guess it’s public information because of open meetings and so on, but I don’t think it’s something that they’re going to be concerned about. We’ve reached out to the promoters and we’ve reached out to the officials, and they’re comfortable with using purse size.”
The proposal was approved.
Also at the November 9, 2016, NYSAC meeting, Edwin Torres 1. complained that a sample MMA glove didn’t fit properly (he had it on the wrong hand); and 2. listened to a discussion of guidelines for suturing a fighter’s cuts and asked, “Why would anybody allow the application of sutures in the middle of a fight?”
The suture guidelines attracted public notice after UFC’s second show in New York (a December 10 fight card in Albany). As reported by Marc Raimondi of MMAFighting.com, multiple UFC fighters and coaches complained that, in a departure from past protocol, NYSAC officials would not let doctors stitch fighters up in the arena and required that they be transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital where they had to wait as long as four hours for the procedure to be completed.
In mid-September of this year, Ndidi Massay told the “New York Post,” “I’m confident boxing and MMA will thrive in the State of New York with the team we have.”
The team they have?
The interim executive director is just that. Interim. Four of the five commissioner seats are open for appointment. The state needs to train a whole new generation of referees and judges. The commission has some highly qualified inspectors and others you wouldn’t send out to buy coffee because they’d bring back tea.
It’s not surprising that Lou DiBella states, “The people in charge at the commission now are a bad joke. They’re puppets; that’s all. Do you think that Ndidi Massay, John Signorile and Edwin Torres actually sat down and had an intelligent discussion about the million-dollar insurance requirement before they approved a set of rules and regulations that are destroying boxing in New York. Because if you do, you’re a f–king moron. And if any of the commissioners disagrees with what I just said, let them sit down in a public forum for a question and answer session on the record with the promoters they’re putting out of business. I’m not talking about a press release from the commission or a statement that someone gives to a shill reporter saying how much Ndidi Massay cares about the health and safety of fighters. I’m talking about honest answers to questions about the mess that Andrew Cuomo and his puppets at the commission have made. But you know that none of the commissioners will do it. Because if they did, they’d be exposed as a bunch of know-nothing political hacks.”
In the past – at least in theory – key NYSAC staff employees were appointed by the commissioners. Now, under recently enacted guidelines, the Department of State (not the commissioners) appoints the NYSAC executive director, all deputy commissioners, and other staff personnel.
Taking the power of appointment away from the commissioners and giving it to the Secretary of State was an acknowledgment that the commissioners were failing to carry out that portion of their responsibilities in an appropriate manner. A rational solution to this problem would have been to appoint competent knowledgeable commissioners. Instead, the power of appointment has been given to a highly politicized department of government whose leaders know virtually nothing about combat sports.
Eric Bentley is currently serving well as the NYSAC’s director of boxing. Kim Sumbler is knowledgable regarding mixed martial arts. But multiple sources say that Ndidi Massay has been sniping at Sumbler and that Sumbler has complained to them that the commission is letting politics interfere with the appointment of inspectors for MMA.
The appointment of deputy commissioners has, in at least one instance, also raised eyebrows. In May of this year, Eric Bentley sent an email to all inspectors saying that the NYSAC was looking for “qualified deputy commissioners” and enclosing a link that inspectors could click on if they were interested in applying for the job. Individuals from outside the commission were also encouraged to apply.
Some very capable people were passed over for the open deputy commissioner positions. One person who was hired was Mario Mercado.
Mercado is well-spoken and personable. He was first hired by the NYSAC in April 2014 as an athletic activities assistant. A February 4, 2015, memorandum written by David Berlin, then NYSAC executive director, details concerns that Berlin had regarding Mercado’s job performance and what Berlin viewed as Mercado’s tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. The memorandum also references the claim (corroborated by a source still at the NYSAC) that Mercado had used his state-issued credit card for personal expenses; most notably a charge of approximately $500 incurred at a Manhattan restaurant.
Mercado resigned from the commission on February 17, 2015, which, according to a person familiar with the proceedings, was one day before he was going to be dismissed. On October 15, 2016, Mercado was rehired by the Department of State as a NYSAC deputy commissioner.
It might be that there’s an innocent explanation for Mercado’s previous conduct. The NYSAC declined to make him available to be interviewed for this article.
Tony Giardina was interviewed by telephone on December 16. Jim Leahy, counsel for the NYSAC, and Department of State spokesperson Laz Benitez were teleconferenced into the call.
Giardina was asked, “What is the official policy with regard to state athletic commission personnel who use their state credit card for personal expenses?“
“You can’t do that,” Giardina answered. “No commission employee who has a state credit card can use that credit card for anything other than commission purposes.”
There was a follow-up question: “Has the New York State Athletic Commission had to deal with this issue in the past two years?”
At that point, there was a conversation between Giardina, Benitez and Leary that this writer wasn’t privy to. Then Giardina came back on the telephone.
“I’m not comfortable going down this line of questioning,” he said.
Meanwhile, on November 17, 2016, New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott issued a press release trumpeting the fact that former NYSAC Chairman Tom Hoover had entered into an agreement with the state pursuant to which he had agreed to pay a $2,000 fine for admitted ethics violations.
In part, the press release declared, “The former Athletic Commission chairman’s use of his government appointment to reward family and friends with free event tickets and inappropriate job opportunities helped illustrate his skewed priorities and the clear dysfunction previously at the Commission’s top levels. Today’s settlement, with its included admission of wrongdoing, helps emphasize how imperative it is that all commissioners and staff adhere to only the highest standards of professionalism and ethical conduct.”
Perhaps Catherine Leahy Scott’s next press release regarding the New York State Athletic Commission can explain the hows and whys of Mario Mercado’s appointment as a deputy commissioner. A representative of the Inspector General’s office has already contacted the NYSAC to inquire about the matter.
The new leadership at the New York State Athletic Commission is entitled to a grace period to fix the many problems that plague the commission. It’s not entitled to a grace period to make things worse. Meanwhile, a crucial test is fast approaching: Andrew Cuomo is expected to designate four NYSAC commissioners shortly after the first of the year.
Governor Cuomo has been on the right side of many issues. If he’s truly concerned about good government and the health and safety of fighters, he’ll appoint smart, hardworking, conscientious, ethical men and women who have an understanding of combat sports and a record of excellence in their past professional endeavors to the commission. These appointees should not be beholden in any way to the people they regulate, nor should they be advocates for a particular interest group – such as UFC.
The governor can no longer claim ignorance of the issues involved and the problems currently facing the New York State Athletic Commission. They’ve been too widely reported upon for that. Nor will a flurry of press releases extolling the virtues of the governor’s nominees cover up the nature of his appointments if the appointees are mediocre.
Either Andrew Cuomo is serious about good government or he isn’t. The people he appoints as NYSAC commissioners will tell us whether he cares more about political gamesmanship or doing the job right.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected]. His most recent book – “A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing” – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.