The 71st Round

Oh boy. Looks like there's substantial cause for embarrassment – and alarm – coming out of New Jersey.

Gerard Gormley, the chairman of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, has been flagged for receiving over 200 free passes for fights that took place in Atlantic City, not to mention unnecessary stays at hotels on the Boardwalk that were billed to the taxpayers.

This story was originally broken by some New Jersey reporters who received packages in the mail, from people who identified themselves as “boxing promoters”, that contained documentation from the Athletic Control Board that appeared to demonstrate Gormley's malfeasance.

The source was dubious, but the documentation wasn't.

And Gormley now finds himself the subject of an ethics investigation, which will probably result in some disciplinary action. The Attorney General's office is also doing some review of the ticket/pass policy and will draft a formal policy to be used in the future.

By now, we can reasonably conclude that boxing promoters did not in fact send those packages to the reporters. I'm not sure that small point was made in subsequent stories, although I could be wrong.

It was sent by someone else entirely, and for good reason. I'm not sure I wouldn't have done the same myself.

In what struck many as a suspicious political payback, Governor Donald DiFrancesco, literally hours before his term ended in January of last year, signed a bill into law that granted Gormley, who is extremely “juiced” politically, by way of strong family connections (most specifically, his brother is a powerful and influential State Senator) an annual salary of $80,000 to continue in the chair he had occupied since 1985, in effect making him a “full-time” employee. This position also carries with it an outstanding benefits package that is worth upwards of $20,000 yearly.

That's EIGHTY-THOUSAND dollars. Not for running the day-to-day operation of the Athletic Control Board; that's Larry Hazzard's job, and has been for quite some time.

That money's just for BEING the chairman of the Board, which, in the Garden State, basically means you're doing nothing much in particular. Hazzard, who obviously wants to distance himself from this as much as possible, told the Asbury Park Press, “I'm not aware of specifically what his job duties are. No job duties were ever discussed with me. The only time he meets with me is when there is a board meeting. Board meetings are for the board members to vote on new initiatives.”

I'm fairly confident he's not stretching the truth one bit.

In most states (There are a couple of exceptions – notably New York, where $101,600 is allocated for the chairman), the salaried positions at a commission are reserved for the Executive Director and his staff. Actual commission members are commonly available just for commission meetings, and are not accustomed to drawing a regular salary of any consequence – and if they are, it's certainly not EIGHTY-THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Needless to say, that arrangement was fine with Gormley himself, though the same can not be said for others.

To achieve this “gelt” for Gormley, four employees from Hazzard's office were removed; the position of deputy commissioner was in fact eliminated entirely.

So you're perfectly free to speculate as to where those letters to the press came from.

To fatten Gerard Gormley's wallet, the legislature weakened a boxing commission, in what is potentially one of the busiest areas for boxing in the country. Should anyone be upset with that kind of sensibility?

You tell ME.

Whichever aspect of this scandal you want to look at, there's plenty to get angry about, but at the same time there's something about Gormley's excessive pass-grabbing that seems benign to me. Maybe it's because at least there's no evidence he tried to extort the promoters in question. Indeed, they've never made any specific complaints in this regard.

There are worse scenarios of commissions – and commissioners – trying to muscle their way into excessive favors by way of threat or action.

And it's at this point where I will paraphrase the material I included in a column two years ago which many of you probably did not read, but which belongs, in one form or another, in any “Cleanup” series.

Early in July of 2001, Ron Borges wrote a story in the Boston Globe, detailing how Al Valenti, a Massachusetts promoter and son of the legendary Rip Valenti, sued the commission in that state for imposing an indefinite suspension on him. The commission's side of the story involved Valenti not paying certain taxes and fees that were owed to it. Valenti's side of the story was that he was punished for refusing to accommodate one of the commissioners, who wanted to place his friends and family into a special ringside section, the result of which would be to move invited guest Marvin Hagler out of that section.

Whichever side of that particular story was true, I certainly found Valenti's version to be completely believable.

That's because I've seen it before.

One of my ex-partners had spent many years in the concert-promotion business. And he introduced me to a term describing a kind of “currency” used when one party did favors for another – like, for example, when a local disc jockey got a few extra ringside seats in exchange for making a few extra plugs on the radio for a live show. Or when a fan got a guitar pic or T-shirt for bringing a bag of pot to a stagehand. Or when a young fan performed various sexual favors for one of the road managers, and got extra backstage passes in return.

The term is “swag”.

You've got the same principle at work in boxing – there's a lot of “swag” to go around.

The New York commission has in the past been notorious for requesting grossly excessive free “working” passes for fights – this has been addressed in stories by Thomas Hauser, Wally Matthews and others.

Certainly there are varying degrees of excess.

And it's a phenomenon that's explained very easily.

You see, as we mentioned earlier in the story, aside from the Executive Director and staff members in the office, no one on a boxing commission is really doing it full-time. And in most cases (a notable exception – the woefully hands-on Jack Kerns), their function with regard to commission business is occasional at best. For the most part, you're talking about people who are notables from other fields, political cronies of the governor, or friends of the party that happens to be in power at the time. As such, they've got a healthy roster of party leaders, political donors, or valuable clients they constantly have to please and accommodate.

Certainly an ideal way to do this is with a ringside ticket or all-access pass to a fight when it comes to the area. If it's a fight of real magnitude, and especially in those cases where an event is sold out and tickets are in great demand, it's human nature to expect that since people want to be treated special, the tickets offer them a value that goes far beyond their face value.

Yes folks, life really works like that.

In fact, anyone who's ever promoted fights, particularly those on television, can tell you a story about how they've had to take care of requests for excess passes or tickets for the commissioners (and their friends, family and associates, of course), which invariably come in at the last minute.

By “last minute”, I mean after the seating plan is in the hands of TicketMaster; after the tickets corresponding to that seating plan have been sold; after the venue has been set up ACCORDING to that seating plan; after anyone with any kind of consideration has already gotten their requests in. Certainly not literally, the afternoon of the fight, when the last thing any promoter should have to worry about is figuring out a way to grease more freebies through the door.

It's not supposed to be that way, of course. Most commissions have some kind of internal rule regarding limits on the comp tickets or passes its people are allowed to get. There are ethics codes that are supposed to apply to all state employees and appointees. But those rules are often impotent, because the ones who are designated to be the guardians of those rules are often the most egregious violators. Witness Gormley, for example. If not for the “anonymous” packages sent to the press, he may have never been held accountable.

I'm not talking about inspectors or referees or judges, who don't really have sufficient “pull” to be demanding tickets. I'm talking about those “big-wigs” who sit on commission boards, and do very little beside attend fights and the infrequent
commission meetings.

Those people are interested in freebies for ego's sake more than anything else – they LOVE to feel important, and delight in being able to demonstrate to their friends and associates how much “juice” they have. It's kind of like having access to a
skybox for a football game. Except you get to sit a lot closer.

For these folks, “swag” works.

And when you're a promoter, giving out a bunch of extra all-access credentials, plus fulfilling all the ticket requests that come in from these people, no matter how ridiculous, you're going the extra mile to make a lot of people happy indeed.

Does a little reciprocation come the promoter's way, you ask? Well, let's just say it would depend on the individual, and the jurisdiction. But you have to ask the question – if someone is asking for a little something extra, how far would he actually go?

Of course, there's another side to this coin. You see, somewhere along the way a promoter is going to run into people with a tremendous sense of entitlement; those are the ones who feel they deserve all the tickets or passes they can get.

Sometimes the accommodation of people like this becomes not a matter of receiving favorable treatment in return, but avoiding what would be decidedly UN-favorable treatment.

I remember being involved with a promotion where one commission member, a pure political animal who also happened to be the product of inheritance, insisted on as many as a dozen ringside tickets at about 5 PM on the day of a fight, going so far as to suggest that, for his sake, we DISLODGE others from their seats, some of which were paid for, with the threat that he could create all kinds of problems for us (like using his influence to prevent us from getting a license or permit) in the future if we didn't give in to him.

We found some way to accommodate him. Why? Part of it, I guess, was cowardice. Part of it was the general atmosphere of “going along to get along”.

And then there was the high-level commission administrator, who asked for between 8-10 tickets for a TV fight, and when informed those tickets were simply not available, said, “Okay, you don't have to give them to me if you don't want to, but I don't have to approve this or that opponent for your show either.”

These guys drive a hard bargain.

Of course, sometimes that kind of behavior has a “boomerang” effect.

There was one case where a commissioner, after approving a relatively new promoter and location (and allowing the tickets to go on sale), then being subsequently thwarted in his attempt to extort two dozen or so extra tickets to that event, well beyond what was allowable by law, actually turned around and, out of spite (and out of nowhere), another show, from an established promoter he had a “relationship” with, on the same date, and IN THE SAME TOWN! This particular commission chief backed off only after the promoter, who happened to be married to a former deputy district attorney, threatened to report him to the state attorney general's office, for violating the state statutes that governed this “ticket policy”.

The moral of the story, though, is that it really didn't do the promoter very much good in the long run. Fighting these guys rarely does. That's why the abuse continues.

I should point out that each of the three examples I used above was from a different jurisdiction. Thankfully though, I believe it's an abuse that does not happen in the majority of commissions. Many of them don't bother the promoter for any tickets at all; there are others who may ask, but are completely understanding if they are told there aren't any available. There's nothing wrong with that kind of decorum.

In the places where it IS happening, though, I think it's serious, even more so if refusal is connected with some kind of repercussion. That's because it involves the transfer of some form of consideration, with actual value, directly from the promoter to the commissioner. And then we get into an area that can be broadly interpreted to be covered by this section of the Professional Boxer Safety Act, as amended later by the Ali Act:

Ҥ 6308. CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.

REGULATORY PERSONNEL- 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 belong to, contract with, or receive any compensation from, any person who sanctions, arranges, or promotes professional boxing matches or who otherwise has a financial interest in an active boxer currently registered with a boxer registry. For purposes of this section, the term “compensation” does not include funds held in escrow for payment to another person in connection with a professional boxing match. The prohibition set forth in this section shall not apply to any contract entered into, or any reasonable compensation received, by a boxing commission to supervise a professional boxing match in another State as described in Section 6303 of title.”

As I did a couple of years ago, when this material was originally presented, I would ask that the ABC, in their annual meeting, which is about to take place this week, demand an examination and discussion of the issue of the use, and abuse, of “swag”.

Maybe the New Jersey situation will be the catalyst.

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