House Speaker Brendan Sharkey threw his support Thursday behind legislation legalizing and regulating Mixed Martial Arts matches, but the bill faces significant resistance in the Senate.
Connecticut is currently one of two states that does not allow Mixed Martial Arts, a popular but violent sport combining elements of wrestling, boxing, and karate. Some lawmakers sought to legalize in-state matches last year, but the legislation, which originated in the Senate, was not supported by the chamber’s leadership and was never acted upon.
This year the House raised its own version of the bill, which has more than 30 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. On Thursday morning, Sharkey posted a statement on his Facebook profile saying it is time the state legalizes and establishes an oversight authority for the sport.
“Though I am not personally a big fan — yet — there is no argument that full-contact Mixed Martial Arts has become an extremely popular sport throughout the country in recent years with virtually every state now allowing and regulating MMA events,” he said.
Sharkey said the events already take place at the state’s two tribal casinos and could attract large crowds to venues in Hartford and Bridgeport. He said cities would receive a “solid economic punch” from hosting matches and taxes on entry tickets could be used to help the state regulate the sport.
The House speaker said he would be raising the legislation in his chamber if it had enough votes to pass.
“As long as we have the votes to pass it on the floor, we’ll run it. There’s no reason not to, it seems to me,” Sharkey said Thursday.
The bill has progressed through the legislative process this year, passing out of the Public Safety Committee in March. But some lawmakers have objected to what they see as a state endorsement of an intrinsically violent sport in a year when they’ve focused considerable energy on preventing violence in the wake of the December Sandy Hook massacre.
“The name itself, cage fighting, should tip you off to the kind of brutal sport it is. I just find it inconsistent that throughout this legislative session we’re trying to reduce violence and I just feel this goes against the grain of what we’re trying to do,” Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, said last month before the Public Safety vote.
Senate President Donald Williams said Thursday that he shares the same concerns.
Even if the House raises and passes the legislation, its chances of passing the Senate seem perhaps less likely than they did last year, when both Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney opposed it.
Williams said he hasn’t had time to take a look at the language of this year’s legislation but his opinions regarding Mixed Martial Arts, and its violent content, have not changed. And like Mikutel, Williams said his objections to violence in culture are heightened this session. Lawmakers spent much of the year drafting and passing bipartisan gun violence legislation, which drew an outpouring of opposition from Second Amendment advocates.
“At a time that we’re concerned about violence in our culture, I think we ought to take a look at things like this and think carefully before just simply plowing ahead,” he said.
Sharkey said he respected the concerns but added that matches are occurring in Connecticut in an unregulated fashion. The state can make the sport safer through regulation and potentially generate revenue in the process.
“I understand the concern there, but there’s a fine line there as to how much government should be involved in the decision making that individuals make on what types of entertainment they feel is appropriate for themselves to watch,” he said.
In addition to objections against violence, last year’s bill also found itself tangled in a labor issue originating in Nevada. Connecticut’s chapter of AFL-CIO opposed the legislation citing unfair labor complaints against MMA promoters in Las Vegas.
“There’s a concern about some of the promoters in other states that would be looking to promote this activity in Connecticut taking an anti-union stance,” Looney said last year.
Sharkey said he was also sympathetic to union concerns, but didn’t think they should necessarily be impacting Connecticut’s laws on the sport.
“What’s happening in Nevada should not necessarily be controlling what we do here in Connecticut,” he said.