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Politics, Problems, and Power at the New York State Athletic Commission: Part One

27
Jan

The New York State Athletic Commission is important. Fights at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center are within its domain. Although its budget is shielded from scrutiny by an arcane financial structure (not even the commissioners and executive director know the actual numbers), it appears as though the NYSAC has the second-largest operating budget of any state athletic commission in the country.

Over the years, the New York State Inspector General has conducted multiple investigations of wrongdoing at the commission. The most publicized of these investigations occurred after heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov suffered severe brain damage in a 2013 fight at Madison Square Garden. The subsequent report of the Inspector General (which covered a wide range of issues, many of which were unrelated to Abdusalamov) documented numerous instances of incompetence and corruption at the NYSAC. Ultimately, the State of New York paid $22 million to Abdusalamov and his family to settle claims alleging substandard medical protocols and improper conduct by New York State Athletic Commission personnel.

The NYSAC has long been a favor bank for powerful economic interests and a source of employment at various levels for the politically well-connected. There have been periods of good oversight, most notably during the tenure of David Berlin who served as executive director of the commission from May 2014 through May 2016. Then Berlin was jettisoned because too often his commitment to good governance was at odds with political expediency.

The New York State Athletic Commission falls within the jurisdiction of the New York State Department of State. This places it under the control of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Department of State hires and fires key NYSAC personnel.

Some conscientious dedicated public servants work at the NYSAC. But too often, political connections take priority over performance. This applies to some – not all – fulltime jobs at the commission as well as the selection of fight-night officials such as inspectors, referees, and judges.

Now, at the start of 2020, the commission is failing to deal constructively with multiple issues that threaten fighter safety and is ignoring a situation that might become a significant financial scandal.

Multiple sources say that Assistant Executive Deputy Secretary of State James Leary is the primary liaison between Governor Cuomo’s office and the NYSAC. “Jim is a competent attorney and very much a part of the political system,” a lawyer who knows Leary says.

Another attorney who has worked with Leary and NYSAC executive director Kim Sumbler adds, “Everything of importance at the commission is now approved at or above the Jim Leary level. Kim can take small steps but that’s all.”

There’s also an obsession with secrecy at the NYSAC that at times is bizarre. Let a simple example suffice.

In September 2018, Theresa D’Andrea was assigned by the Department of State to the position of fulltime counsel for the NYSAC. D’Andrea had no apparent legal expertise relating to combat sports. She had to feel her way through the nuts-and-bolts issues inherent in her job on a day-to-day basis. Her precise duties at the commission were unclear, although several commission employees reported that she was responsible for recording RSVPs for a January 4, 2019, office holiday party that were sent to almost one hundred commission personnel. This seems like an inefficient use of state resources for an attorney whose salary was listed by the state as $123,000 a year.

On October 23, 2019, this writer was told that D’Andrea was no longer with the NYSAC. To confirm this information, I emailed Mercedes Padilla (the official spokesperson for the commission). The email to Padilla read in full:

“Dear Mercedes, Is Theresa D’Andrea still counsel for the NYSAC? Thank you. Thomas Hauser”

The following morning, Padilla emailed back, “Yes, she is.”

I followed up with, “Are you certain? Several people at the weigh-in yesterday said that she had left the position.”

And Padilla responded, “Hi Tom, We do not comment on personnel matters.”

Does anyone think that’s an appropriate response from a government agency?

There have been an increasing number of complaints from commission employees about absentee leadership.

The New York State Athletic Commission is located at 123 William Street in Manhattan (one of New York City’s five boroughs). Kim Sumbler’s Facebook page lists her as living in Ontario (which, for the uninitiated, is in Canada, not New York). The office of the Inspector General has been told (and is satisfied with the explanation) that Sumbler works at home and out of a Department of State office in Buffalo. Director of Boxing Matt Delaglio and Director of Mixed Martial Arts Ed Kunkle (both of whom are well-regarded within the combat sports community) carry the ball in New York when Sumbler is absent from the NYSAC office.

The NYSAC has five commissioners who, in theory, are charged with making policy for the commission. But the commissioners rarely, if ever, discuss issues of importance. In some instances they aren’t even aware of them. One of the commissioners – Dr. James Vosswinkel – attends fights, employee training sessions, and other commission-related events on a regular basis. The other four commissioners are largely uninvolved.

Many of the commission’s per diem employees are poorly trained. It doesn’t help for an inspector to watch a fighter’s hands being wrapped in the dressing room before a fight if the inspector doesn’t know what to look for.

One of the most counter-productive practices at the NYSAC today is that there are times when an employee is “written up” by a supervisor for a breach of protocol or other misdeed but the supervisor is told to not discuss it with the employee. The logic behind this practice is that confronting the employee directly would risk alienating the employee. An alienated employee might complain to a political backer or take legal action against the commission, but it’s good to have a record of misdeeds on file in case the employee sues the NYSAC later on. The ill-advised nature of this practice is evident in the fact that (1) the complaint against the employee might be unfounded but the employee isn’t given the opportunity to rebut it, and (2) if the employee isn’t told that a problem exists, it increases the likelihood that the employee will make the same mistake again and again.

Poor judging and refereeing are common in New York.

Alicia Napoleon loads up with a punch to an already downed Eva Bajic. Photo by Wojtek Urbanek

Two gross mismatches on an April 10, 2019, fight card at Sony Hall in New York showed boxing at its worst. In the fifth bout of the evening, Alicia Napoleon knocked Eva Bajic down twice in the second round. Each time, she punched Bajic after the knockdown but the referee seemed to not notice. In the next bout, Bakhodir Jalolov knocked Brendan Barrett down twice in the first stanza. Following the second knockdown, Jalolov punched Barrett while Barrett was on the canvas. Again, the referee let it pass.

Watching some of the NYSAC’s lesser judges for an entire round can be a troubling experience. There are times when the fight is in one part of the ring and a judge is looking at another. On other occasions, the judges seem to be following the action but how they’re processing it is unsettling.

June 1, 2019, was an important night for boxing in New York. In an early undercard fight, Josh Kelly was on the receiving end of a gift draw against Ray Robinson that left many fans shaking their heads. Then former Irish Olympian Katie Taylor (who, like Kelly, was the “house” fighter) was awarded a 96-94, 96-94, 95-95 decision over Delfine Persoon. Taylor has many fans, and deservedly so. But even her admirers questioned the decision.

Belfast native Carl Frampton (the 2016 Boxing Writers Association of America “Fighter of the Year”) told BBC Radio 5, “The judges have got it wrong, and it is heartbreaking to see Delfine Persoon in tears. I thought she won that fight by miles. That was a disgraceful decision.” Former WBA heavyweight beltholder David Haye added, “That is not the sight you want to see where someone has given everything in the gym but they do not get the decision because of the political power.” Even Eddie Hearn (Taylor’s promoter) acknowledged that he’d scored the fight a draw and conceded, “Quite a few people had Persoon winning.”

There was worse to come. In the main event, Andy Ruiz dominated Anthony Joshua en route to a seventh-round knockout. At the time of the stoppage, two of the judges had Ruiz ahead by a meager one point and the third judge had Joshua leading by a 57-56 margin.

One week later, on the undercard of Gennady Golovkin vs. Steve Rolls, an even stranger scorecard was turned in at Madison Square Garden. In the third fight of the evening, Charles Conwell squared off against Courtney Pennington. Conwell clearly dominated the first half of the fight. Judge Ken Ezzo scored the first six rounds in his favor while judge Mark Consentino gave him six of the first seven. Alan Rubenstein inexplicably scored the first four rounds for Pennington.

Rubenstein’s scorecard was so off the mark that, after the fourth stanza, a deputy commissioner was dispatched to ask him if he’d confused which fighter was which. That’s hard to confuse, since the cards filled out by judges after each round clearly designate a “red” and “blue” corner. Rubenstein denied that he had confused the fighters. Pennington then rallied in the second half of the fight, winning three and two of the last four rounds on Ezzo’s and Consentino’s respective scorecards. But after being questioned about his scoring, Rubenstein scored all six of the final rounds in favor of Conwell.

Asked for comment on Rubenstein’s scorecard, Lee Park (who at the time was Department of State spokesperson for the NYSAC) responded, “We have no comment.”

After the death of Maxim Dadashev from injuries sustained during a fight on ESPN+, ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas put the cost of poor judging in perspective.

“Anytime a fighter steps into the ring,” Atlas declared, “they leave the ring with less of themselves. It’s just a matter of how much less. That’s why I can be so harsh sometimes in calling out the administrators of the sport when the judges don’t do their job and they take a decision away from a fighter. We’re not in baseball. We’re not in a sport where, if you’re robbed of a base hit, you get a chance to come up the next inning. We’re in a sport where, if you’re robbed of a win, you go back in the line and you may have to take thousands of punches more, many fights more, before you get back to that position where you can get out of the sport, where you can make the money, take care of your family, where you can achieve the things that you’re in the sport to achieve. So every time one of the administrators, the so-called protectors of the sport, the judges and the officials, don’t do their job properly, it puts a fighter at more risk than they should be.”

There’s a lack of common sense at the New York State Athletic Commission with regard to matters large and small.

At the small end of the spectrum; on March 17, 2019, Top Rank promoted a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden. One of the undercard bouts saw Ireland’s Paddy Barnes in the ring against Oscar Mojica. The NYSAC doctor assigned to Mojica’s corner wore bright green pants and a green blouse in celebration of the holiday. Under normal circumstances, that would have been an acceptable fashion choice. But on St. Patrick’s Day, it was akin to a neutral official wearing a Paddy Barnes corner jacket while in Mojica’s corner.

On a more serious note, the NYSAC is mired in the dark ages when it comes to technology. For example, some trainers now use smart phones in the corner during a fight.

“I know for a fact that communications devices are being used in the corner in New York,” promoter Lou DiBella said last year. “The trainer is there with a cell phone in his pocket and an earbud or bluetooth in his ear. He gets information while the fight is going on, and sometimes it can give his fighter a competitive advantage.”

The National Football League forbids the use of electronic coaching aids such as smart phones that might give one team or the other a competitive edge during the course of a game. Major League Baseball is currently dealing with an electronic cheating scandal and taking forceful steps to combat it.

Some state athletic commissions (such as California and Nevada) limit the use of smart phones in a fighter’s corner during fights. The NYSAC has washed its hands of the issue.

Gennadiy Golovkin exchanges punches with Sergiy Derevyanchenko at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Similarly, other states with significant boxing programs – Nevada, California, and New Jersey among them – utilize instant video review to correct miscalls by referees. New York does not. The folly of New York’s position was made clear when Gennady Golovkin fought Sergiy Derevyanchenko at Madison Square Garden on October 5, 2019. In round two of that bout, a left hook from Golovkin landed cleanly and opened an ugly gash on Derevyanchenko’s right eyelid. Harvey Dock (an excellent referee) mistakenly ruled that the cut had been caused by an accidental head butt. Because the New York State Athletic Commission doesn’t allow for instant video review, Dock’s ruling stood despite clear video evidence to the contrary. Had the fight ultimately been stopped because of the cut with Derevyanchenko leading on the judges’ scorecards, the inequity of the result would have been enormous.

By way of contrast; thirteen days later, Artur Beterbiev fought Oleksandr Gvozdyk in Philadelphia. Late in round one, Beterbiev shoved Gvozdyk who then tripped over Artur’s foot and fell to the canvas. Referee Gary Rosato mistakenly called the incident a knockdown which, at the time, loomed large. Gvozdyk had been winning the round, so the call represented a possible three-point swing on the judges’ scorecards.

In New York, Rosato’s miscall would have stood. But the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission is run by Greg Sirb (one of the best boxing overseers in the country). Sirb quickly reviewed the video and, before the start of the second round, changed the call to “no knockdown.”

Golovkin’s October 5 fight against Derevyanchenko also highlighted how sloppy the NYSAC’s oversight of fights can be.

Golovkin didn’t come to the commission meeting one day before the fight when the gloves that the fighters would wear were selected. His trainer (Johnathon Banks) did and chose Gennady’s gloves. Then, a half-hour later, the NYSAC was told that Golovkin didn’t like the gloves and wanted to switch to a pair that had been chosen by Nikita Ababiy (an undercard fighter). The change was approved by the NYSAC with the permission of the Derevyanchenko and Ababiy camps, and that was that. Until fight night.

On fight night, Ababiy found that the thumb on one of the gloves he’d gotten from Golovkin didn’t fit comfortably and, shortly before he went to the ring, he had to reglove. Meanwhile – and more significantly – during Golovkin-Derevyanchenko, the padding in Gennady’s left glove shifted and the punching area of his glove collapsed as though an indentation had been made by a half-orange. This is similar in principle to a glove splitting during a bout. The fight should have been stopped and the glove replaced. But either the inspectors assigned to Golovkin’s corner didn’t notice the problem or decided to let it pass.

After the fight, an NYSAC deputy commissioner examined – at least, in theory – Golovkin’s gloves in the ring, and the lead inspector assigned to Gennady’s corner filled out an “NYSAC Inspector Worksheet.” The standard NYSAC Worksheet has a line that reads “Gloves Examined post-fight.” In this instance, the “yes” box next to that entry was checked, but the glove irregularity wasn’t noted.

The damage to Golovkin’s glove was a health and safety issue. Possible implications included the loss of protection for Gennady’s hands and increased damage to Derevyanchenko’s face from punches. But that’s the least of the health and safety issues facing the New York State Athletic Commission today. More on that in Part Two tomorrow.

 

Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected] His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside 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. On June 14, 2020, he will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.