NEW YORK -- Bob Reilly remembers the kid's body being put in a coffin, and the coffin getting hoisted into a beat-up van, and the van driving 150 miles on a dirt road until it reached the family's mud hut in an East Africa village. It was ages ago, in the 1970s, and the kid's name was John.
"He dropped dead running a 10,000-meter race," Reilly says now. "These tragedies happen in every sport. You can go out jogging and drop dead of a heart attack. But the purpose of sports is not to inflict injury. We can't ever forget that or what do we become? We become barbaric."
From a high school track coach in Uganda to New York State Assemblyman, Reilly's passion about sports and the role they play in society is unwavering. Depending who you talk to, he's either the voice of common sense and civility or a whimpering loser and coward who has his panties in a knotted bunch.
This Wednesday, Reilly, a Democrat representing Albany and Saratoga counties, will be the lead voice arguing against a bill that would regulate the sport of mixed martial arts in New York. Bill 2009-B needs 11 votes out of 21 members to make it out of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports; if it passes, the bill then winds through two more committees before reaching the Assembly floor for a general vote. If Reilly has his way, MMA will remain banned in NY, no different than dog fighting or dialing-while-driving.
It's the government's job to protect the people -- that's why there are yellow lines down the road, and use-by-dates on milk cartons -- and Reilly is adamant MMA fosters "a culture of violence that is harmful to society." In an interview with FanHouse, Reilly repeated the questions he posed to his fellow committee members last June, when a bill to legalize combative sports such as MMA was rejected by the assembly. "Should we endorse cockfighting?" he asks. "Should we allow humans in a cage to knee, kick and punch each other for entertainment?"
Answers to these emotionally charged questions are varied and complex. Assemblyman Steven Englebright, the bill's chief sponsor, says it behooves the tourism committee to explore all aspects of the new sport, especially if it leads to revenue opportunities for a state wobbling under the weight of a recession. (New York's share of the gate has increased from 3 percent to 10 percent off last year's proposed bill.) Lawrence Epstein, Ultimate Fighting Championship's general counsel, notes that 37 states have passed rules regulating MMA, and the media capital of the world is the sport's logical, inevitable destination. Lobbyists point to a study that suggests fights located in Manhattan or Buffalo would bring New York millions of dollars.
High-profile fighters such as Matt Serra, the former UFC welterweight champion, say competing in a cage is a personal choice, with fighters assuming all risks. Even family and friends of Zack Kirk, the MMA fighter who recently suffered a broken neck and paralysis after crashing head-first into a mat during a takedown attempt, say it was a freak accident and the sport is not to blame.
Reilly, a high school teacher for a decade and a track coach for 26 years, understands he's up against powerful figures, in every sense of the word. But he insists New Yorkers have his back, citing a poll he commissioned amongst members of his district in which 67 percent of New York residents said they opposed legalizing MMA while 18 percent of the 468 participants said they favored bringing it to the state.
"There is overwhelming, widespread opposition to [MMA]," Reilly says. "Many of my constituents come up to say, 'You're doing the right thing. How can we have this?' It's a violent sport that is harmful and damaging. Violence begets violence. It helps create a culture in our society of domestic violence, of bullying, of violence against gays, of illegal gun use. It's the job of state legislatures to pass laws against that sort of stuff, and then we put something like ultimate fighting as our form of entertainment?"
He spins anecdotes like a basketball coach calling out plays, all fervor and gung-ho commitment. He tells the sad story of a man in his district who killed his wife, then committed suicide, another tale of violence begetting violence, though he offers no direct link to MMA. He says in Albany's city schools and on its streets, "the fights among young people, half the time it's girls, which I find a little more disturbing. That might sound sexist, excuse me. But it's no different than ultimate fighting, when I see one woman grab another woman by the head and knee her in the stomach."
"I find that even more offensive than man doing that to man. I don't think we should show that to kids," Reilly says. "We don't want that in our schools. We legislate bullying and domestic violence all the time, but how can kids tell the difference when they're seeing it on TV, as a legitimate sport?"
"Economically, this is very bad for our state. We're constantly turning to gambling to fund our state," he adds. "I dispute what the UFC people say about why we should have this, that it would be a money maker. I think it will cost us more economically than it would help us."
Reilly's outspokenness has led to death threats, worrisome enough that the state police have stepped in. He won't go into detail, saying such hazards come with the business of being an elected official. "I have come across fighters who have been very respectful," Reilly says. "There are those who want to demonstrate their skills in the sport and there are fans who are basically over the top."
He has an athlete's heart, a runner's discipline. A man who coached cross country at Siena College for 17 years and is a member of the college's Hall of Fame is not a man who hates sports or fears competition. He sees a clear divide between mixed martial arts and full-contact sports such as boxing, football and wrestling. (As a boxing fan, he wishes it were forced to operate under amateur rules.) His only gripe is with the MMA, the sport "where damaging your opponent is one of the main goals."
"Are there any rule changes that would make it acceptable? Yes, there are, but from what I've read they're far away. Four or five years from now can we start moving this in a different direction ... and offer an alternative to sheer violence? I say yes."
Headgear and a scoring system that doesn't result in fighters getting whipped into a bloody pulp would be a start, Reilly says. And yes, to hardcore fans, he knows such rules make him a wimp. Still, he shows no signs of retreating against deep-pocketed lobbyists and Las Vegas-based tough guys such as Dana White, president of the UFC.
"Dana White is a ruthless person. I don't think that's the type of person we should do business with," Reilly says. "People still say that about Don King, with good reason. These types are very effective promoters. Don King left in his wake Mike Tyson and people like that, people cast aside."
Brave voice or out-of-touch sissy? To sideline observers, one thing is sure: Reilly is one politician not afraid to rattle the cage.