NEW YORK HEAD CASE By Nicolaus Mills
If Governor David Paterson has his way, New York State's ban on mixed martial arts will be repealed some time this spring. The sport, which combines boxing, wrestling, and jujitsu and allows a competitor to strike his opponent even when the latter has been knocked to the ground, was banned by the State Legislature 13 years ago in response to Governor George Pataki's argument that mixed martial arts was too dangerous. Governor Paterson's rationale for repealing the ban is that mixed martial arts events will bring the state much needed revenue. The governor has included the ban in his 2010-11 budget, and his proposal has the support of Melvina Lathan, the chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission. The irony is that Paterson's championing of mixed martial arts comes just when the danger to athletes from repeated blows to the head has become a major issue in hockey and football, where, unlike mixed martial arts, competitors wear helmets and are penalized for punching each other. The football story is particularly instructive. For years the National Football League (NFL) and its physicians argued that the medical evidence about blows to the head causing permanent damage to players was inconclusive. Then in the fall of 2009 a study commissioned by the NFL showed that Alzheimer's and similar memory-related diseases were appearing in former players at a much higher rate than in the general population. Among players in the 30 to 49 age range, memory-related disorders occurred at 19 times the rate for the population as a whole. The turning point for football came at an October 28, 2009, House Judiciary Committee hearing, where California Democrat Linda Sanchez punctured the NFL's balloon of denials by comparing the league's testimony to that of the tobacco companies before the 1990s. By November the NFL had begun to change its public stance that the medical evidence on the long-term dangers of football concussions was inconclusive, and by December the league instituted rules requiring any player who exhibited signs of a concussion to be removed from a game or practice and be barred from returning to competition the same day. The momentum for taking football concussions seriously and doing everything to lessen them continues. Dr. Ira Casson, the physician who continually questioned whether football-related concussions were the source of dementia among former pro-players, has resigned as co-chairman of the N.F.L.'s committee on concussions, and muckraking articles, such Jeanne Marie Laskas's "Game Brain" in the October 2009 edition of GQ and Sean Gregory's "The Problem with Football" in Time's February 8, 2010, edition, have now become standard reading on the subject of football and head injuries. These days the scandal-plagued David Paterson is a governor who may yet be forced to resign from office. But it would be a shame if the attention currently being focused on the governor's legal troubles prompted legislators and the media to ignore his advocacy of mixed martial arts. By comparison with football, which, in addition to the NFL, includes thousands of vulnerable college and high-school athletes, mixed martial arts is a comparatively minor sport. But it is sport gaining fans as interest in boxing wanes, and legalizing mixed martial arts in New York can only add a new class of athletic victims to those we already have. Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and co-author with Michael Walzer of Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.