Boxing is allowed to exist as an exception to state laws against violence on the premise that it will be regulated in a manner that protects the combatants physically and financially. In 1996, when it became clear that the individual states were not properly protecting boxers, Congress enacted the Professional Boxing Safety Act. Four years later, that law was augmented by the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. These two pieces of legislation, taken together, are commonly referred to as the "Ali Act."
As well-intentioned as it might be, the Ali Act suffers from glaring flaws. First, it accepts the present form of piecemeal state regulation. Second, it has too many loopholes. And most significantly, no one is enforcing it. Many people in boxing today simply ignore the act's requirements. And virtually no one in a position of authority with regard to enforcement is doing anything to remedy the situation.
The Ali Act requires that each sanctioning organization file "a complete description of the organization's ratings criteria" annually with the Federal Trade Commission. In the alternative, a sanctioning body may post the information on its official Web site. The WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO all purport to do so. But their actual ratings practices mock the law. An incomplete or false filing falls short of compliance.
The law mandates that, when promoting a fight, a promoter must file copies of all agreements to which the promoter and one or both of the boxers are parties with the supervising state athletic commission. It also requires that the promoter disclose to each boxer "the amounts of any compensation or consideration that a promoter has contracted to receive from such match." These requirements are largely ignored.
State athletic commission personnel also violate the act when it serves their purposes. In a section entitled "conflicts of interest," the law declares, "No member or employee of a boxing commission, no person who administers or enforces State boxing laws, and no member of the Association of Boxing Commissions may receive any compensation from any person who sanctions, arranges, or promotes professional boxing matches."
In Nevada, however, each of the state's five commissioners is given six tickets in addition to his own seat for every fight card held in the state. These tickets are provided by the promoter. Two of them must be ringside. The other four tickets may be anywhere in the arena that the promoter chooses. The purported goal of this rule is to eliminate the embarrassment and abuse that have come in the past from commissioners asking promoters for free tickets.
These tickets are no small matter. For the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight, six ringside tickets had a face value of $12,000 and were being resold on the Internet and elsewhere for multiples of that amount. Also, ringside tickets can be in the first row or the last. "Anywhere in the arena" can mean more ringside tickets or nose-bleed seats. That leaves a lot of room for favors.
In April, more than 300 ring physicians and other state athletic commission personnel attended the WBC's World Medical Congress in Cancun, Mexico. In addition to the medical agenda, those present enjoyed fine dining, cocktail parties, golf and other forms of entertainment. Who paid what for whom is an issue.
Some state athletic commissions take the position that referees, judges and ring doctors fall within the purview of the Ali Act. Others have a contrary view. However, everyone agrees that the executive director of a state athletic commission is covered by the law. Yet at the IBF's 2007 convention, which was held in Miami Beach, one executive director was paid by the IBF to conduct a seminar (in addition to his transportation, hotel and meals being covered).
The WBA's 2007 annual convention will be held in China in mid-October. The WBC will gather in Manila the following month. It would be nice to think that the "conflicts of interest" provision of the Ali Act will be adhered to there, but a blurring of the lines is likely to occur.
The Ali Act also requires that states honor medical suspensions imposed on a fighter by another state. That provision, too, is violated on a regular basis.
The abuses noted above are not a complete list of Ali Act violations. They are simply examples.
Primary responsibility for enforcing the Ali Act rests with the United States Department of Justice and its many U.S. Attorney's offices across the country.
Under the law, a sanctioning organization is not entitled to collect sanctioning fees if it fails to make complete and honest disclosure of its ratings criteria. That law is not being enforced by the federal government.
Under the law, a promoter who knowingly fails to make a required contract filing with a state athletic commission or fails to make required financial disclosure to a fighter is guilty of a crime punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $100,000. The Justice Department is responsible for these prosecutions. No such indictment has ever been brought.
Also, any member or employee of a boxing commission who knowingly violates the law by accepting compensation from a sanctioning body or promoter is guilty of a crime punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $20,000. Here again, there has been no enforcement.
One should also note that, according to the Internal Revenue Service, a commissioner who receives free tickets from a promoter and gives these tickets to family members or friends (or sells them), is required to pay personal income tax on the tickets. Lots of luck on that one.
A law doesn't mean anything if nobody enforces it. Here, the thoughts of Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, are instructive.
"I can't tell you how frustrated I am," Lueckenhoff told ESPN.com last week. "When the ABC was formed, we thought we were going to accomplish some important things, but we have no real power to deal with violations of the Ali Act. So we're in a situation now where we have this law. We're trying to uphold it. It's a federal law. And we're getting no help whatsoever from U.S. Attorneys around the country.
"There's no boxing commission in Wyoming. A promoter in Wyoming was promoting fights in clear violation of the Ali Act. We sent names and dates to the U.S. Attorney in Wyoming and never got a response. We complained to the U.S. Attorney's office in Alabama about a promoter who was running illegal toughman contests there. That U.S. Attorney told us he had our complaint but wasn't going to act on it. And these aren't isolated instances. I've made at least 10 referrals to U.S. Attorney's offices around the country and haven't found anyone who was willing to go to court to enforce the law."
"Federal law requires that states honor medical suspensions imposed on a fighter by another state," Lueckenhoff continued. "It's not hard to find out if a fighter is on medical suspension. It's right on the Internet. But last year alone, there were 24 violations by our own member commissions that I know of. And then you have a fighter like Lamon Brewster, who's on medical suspension. He goes over to Germany and fights for a world title, still on suspension, and HBO televises it. What kind of message does that send?"
"The law simply isn't being followed," Lueckenhoff said, in closing. "I wish the Justice Department would bring one action based on each section of the law that's being violated. Forbid one sanctioning body that's acting illegally from collecting a sanctioning fee. Shut down one promoter who's promoting illegal fights. Step in just once to punish the people responsible for knowingly allowing a fighter who's on medical suspension to fight. If that happened, people would start toeing the line. Things would change real fast. But the federal government has made it clear to us again and again that it simply isn't interested in enforcing federal law as it relates to boxing."
Thus, the question: What's the point of having a law if nobody enforces it?
Thomas Hauser's most recent collection of boxing columns -- "The Greatest Sport of All" -- has been published by the University of Arkansas Press. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org