Government safety regulations make it illegal to improve safety in combat sports

mieshatateAs the sport of Mixed Martials Arts (MMA) continues to grow at a rapid pace, marked improvements have been made in all areas of the industry with only one exception that stands as a potential impediment to MMA’s continued meteoric rise – judging and refereeing. Not surprisingly, judges and referees are both aspects of the various state athletic commissions that sanction MMA, and as such, no competition is allowed in this area. One of the many cumbersome regulations the state athletic commissions mandates is that you must use the judges/referees assigned to you.

The atrocious judging, which UFC president Dana White has said is the greatest threat to the continued growth of the sport, is due to two factors: the incompetency of the judges assigned to MMA events (many are simply recycled boxing judges with little to no understanding of the sport of MMA) and the nonsensical 10 point must scoring system imposed upon MMA. It should not be too surprising that mandating the use of another sport’s scoring system for the sport of MMA may not produce the most desirable results.

Even worse than judging, is the refusal to allow the many free market solutions that have already cropped up, to provide competent referees. As referees are literally tasked with protecting the fighter from serious injury, or even death, one would think that refereeing competency would be set at the highest level, with little to no tolerance for inadequate performance. The reality is almost the exact opposite. Here is the most recent example (of which there are so many) of gross referee incompetency that directly endangers the safety and welfare of the fighter: From popular MMA website, Cage Potato’s recap of last night’s fight, Strikeforce: Tate vs Rousey – The good, the bad, and the ugly under the section for “the bad”:

- The referee in Tate vs. Rousey not stopping the fight until about eight seconds after Tate’s arm had grown a new elbow. Tate showed her warrior heart by not tapping until the pain was overwhelming; the ref showed his ignorance by not stopping the fight until that moment.

When I was watching the fight as this happened live, I could not believe what I was watching. The arm was clearly broken, and the referee just stood there watching. The referee is supposed to stop the fighter from taking punishment when they can no longer intelligently defend themselves, as well as the instant the fighter suffers a debilitating injury. For instance, if a fighter suffers a cut over his eye, or a cut that is sufficiently deep, the referee is required to stop the fight and check with the ringside doctor whether or the not the cut is serious enough to prevent the wounded fighter from continuing. In some cases, the fight will be stopped not because the cut itself is a risk, but because of the location of the cut. If it is directly above the eye, the loss of vision that will result from the blood flowing down past the eye will prompt the doctor to stop the fight, as this impedes the fighter’s ability to defend himself. I hope it goes without saying that a broken arm would obviously qualify as warranting an immediate stoppage as well!

MMA is a great example to demonstrate just how backwards the call for government regulation is. It is in the UFC’s interest to use the most competent, professional, and skilled judges/referees for a variety of reasons. And they have repeatedly begged for better judges and referees. Yet such cries fall on the slow-moving, nearly deaf ears of a government bureaucracy. If we want to only focus on the profit-motive and assume there are no other motivations at play, it is extremely bad for business to have fighters dying or getting seriously hurt in your sport. For obvious reasons, it harms the image of the company, it opens you up to liability and lawsuits, it makes it much less attractive for potential NFL athletes to join a sport that is unsafe and thus reduces the quality of fighters etc. So even accepting the premise that businessmen are soulless demons only motivated by greed, it is precisely that greed that ensures they operate in a way that meets consumers demands – a sport that has competent referees and judges.

As an aside, UFC president Dana White has donated so much money to charity, and gone so far above and beyond his obligations as a boss, it would be remiss of me not to mention that and include one such example. I put a great degree of emphasis on the theoretical strengths of the free market system, as that is where the argument must be, and is won, that I did not want to imply the reality of the UFC is anything close to the illusory “greedy business” that so much of the narrative for government intervention claims to be the case, and ultimately relies on.

As the embedded links above demonstrate, there are already so many free-market solutions coming into existence to meet this government failure of providing quality judges and referees. Unfortunately the government monopoly on licensing limits the effectiveness of these solutions. While it is a great thing to have more and more qualified judges/referees in the world, it is of little use if they are unable to be employed. Unfortunately, it seems like the various state athletic commissions operate much like all other government agencies, and even if they begin to employ some of these superior referees, the licensing process is likely to take years. And worse, the most vital fix, the removal of incompetent refs, is even more unlikely to occur under a government-run athletic commission. Unlike a private firm which operates under the profit/loss test and risks losing funding as a result of acquiring a reputation for incompetent employees, the state athletic commissions have no such concerns. Funded by compulsory taxation, incompetency becomes institutionalized, not purged as it must be in the free market system.

In the next 10-20 years, I fully expect the anemic state athletic commissions, to slowly incorporate some of the amazing new referees being produced by private training camps, and perhaps even adopt an appropriate scoring system for this new sport. The tragic irony is that whenever they finally do a satisfactory enough job, the myth of government keeping us safe will be propagated all over again. The beauty of this example is that MMA is so new. We are here to bear witness to how markets operate (and whether or not the supposed market failures, actually occur!) and the effect government regulation actually has: to retard progress of a thriving sport and directly endangering the safety and welfare of the athletes involved. It is a tragedy to think that whenever they finally absorb enough of the free market solutions, a fresh new generation of progressives will point to the example of how necessary government is to keep us safe. Why look at MMA! Could you imagine if there were no athletic commissions? People would get broken arms and the refs would just stand there, doing nothing! Thankfully government forced their way in to keep us safe from ourselves.

I should mention for those not as familiar with MMA, the referee in the incident above has not and will not be disciplined in anyway. The sport, or more accurately the athletic commissions, has a long history of refusing to discipline and continuing to employ referees and judges that demonstrate extreme negligence. It is so consistent in this regard that there isn’t even any question of whether or not disciplinary action will occur in situations like this. I should have mentioned this earlier, but I forgot that not all of my readers are MMA fans and are not as intimately familiar with its history in that regard.


  1. Great article. I am a HUGE fan of MMA and have thought many of the same things you have included in your post. Kudos to you for picking such an interesting and relevant topic to illustrate failure that is inappropriate government intervention into the (should be)free market.