The New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates no athletics other than boxing and wrestling, took another hit this week when the New York State Inspector General’s Office issued a scathing 48-page report assailing the commission for numerous lapses in judgment. This was hardly the first time the 96-year-old agency was raked over the coals, nor will it be the last. The NYSAC has scant chance of getting its house in order so long as it remains a vessel for political patronage.
The genesis for the latest report was the tragic November 2, 2013 fight at Madison Square Garden between heavyweights Magomed Abdusalamov and Mike Perez. Abdusalamov left the ring on his own power after losing the decision, but back in his dressing room it soon became evident that something was seriously wrong. He would be transported to the hospital in a taxi, rather than in one of the ambulances waiting outside the arena. No one had thought to brief his handlers on how to proceed in the event of an emergency. Today Abdusalamov, who had surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain, requires around-the-clock care. Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of his wife and three young daughters.
The study concluded that several ring physicians were guilty of misfeasance, as was the inspector assigned to the boxer. The Inspector General’s report also came down hard on commission chairman Tom Hoover although the tragedy did not occur on his watch but that of his predecessor, Melvina Lathan. Commissioner Hoover, it was learned, arranged credentials for friends and relatives so that they could attend matches for free and greased the skids for a friend who applied for a position with The New York State Athletic Commission for which he was totally unqualified. Within hours after the report was released, Hoover resigned.
The New York State Athletic Commission
There was a boxing commission in New York way back when – back when the sport was restricted to private clubs — but the agency was abolished and then reborn in 1920. From the beginning, power was vested in the hands of a three-member panel, the members of who were appointed by the Governor. And from the beginning, some of the decisions made by the panel were head-scratchers. Prominent sportswriter W.O. McGeehan had a pet name for the trio. He called them the Three Dumb Dukes.
When McGeehan coined this phrase, the chairmanship rotated between William Muldoon and James A. Farley. Muldoon, who operated a health farm patronized by many business tycoons, was once recognized as America’s foremost Greco-Roman wrestler and would later achieve renown as the trainer/rejuvenator of John L. Sullivan. James A. Farley was a force in Tammany Hall, the political machine that was the backbone of New York’s Democratic Party. He would go on to become the chairman of the National Democratic Party and the U.S. Postmaster General.
Muldoon and Farley were the prototypes for future appointees to the New York boxing commission. In the ensuing years, a number of men who achieved renown in sports served on the panel. Their colleagues were men who were well-connected to the politicians at the top of the Empire State food chain.
The list of former chairmen of The New York State Athletic Commission includes Edwin B. Dooley, an All-American quarterback at Dartmouth, former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, and the aforementioned Hoover who played five seasons in the NBA. Although he was never the chairman, baseball immortal Jackie Robinson also served on the commission. And what were his qualifications? “I’ve seen a handful of major fights,” said Robinson upon accepting the appointment, “and as a kid Joe Louis was my hero.”
Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller appointed Robinson who was then retired and living in Connecticut while maintaining an apartment in New York. His selection informs us that some appointees were selected for their public relations value. Robinson was deemed useful to Rockefeller in wooing African-American voters to the Republican Party.
From a public relations standpoint, no pick was more perfect than Eddie Eagan who was appointed chairman of the commission by Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1945. No one ever spoke badly about Eagan who was a real-life Frank Merriwell, the hero of hundreds of dime novels for young readers.
Raised in humble circumstances in Colorado, Eddie Eagan served in World War I, after which he earned degrees from Harvard Law School and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and then left his law practice to serve in World War II where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Moreover, Eagan, who never turned pro, was once widely recognized as America’s top amateur boxer. He competed in three Olympiads, winning gold medals in boxing and bobsledding.
The chairmanship of the boxing commission was tough on a man’s reputation. This was true even of Eddie Eagan. He was bounced out the door in 1949. The charge against him was that he stood by and did nothing as the scandal-plagued International Boxing Club crushed their would-be rivals, acquiring a near-monopoly over boxing at the highest levels of the sport.
Dewey’s pick to succeed Eagan, Robert K. Christenberry, was seemingly a good choice to come in and clean up the mess. A hotel executive who had lost part of an arm at age 17 in a grenade explosion while serving with the Marines in World War I, Christenberry, a daily Bible reader, was active with the Boy Scouts.
Christenberry proved to be as overmatched as Eddie Eagan, or at least that was the verdict of his successor Julius Helfand who said that Christenberry “gave comfort” to racketeers. The assertion would shadow Christenberry during an unsuccessful run for mayor.
The racketeering element was always present in boxing to some degree. Regulators committed to keeping the sport clean were swimming against the tide. But their job became even tougher when Don King arrived on the scene.
In 1976, King cajoled the American Broadcasting Company into bankrolling a boxing tournament. Called the “U.S. Boxing Tournament of Champions,” the tourney collapsed after only six shows amidst proven allegations of bogus records and purse kickbacks and widespread rumors of fixed fights.
Among those caught in the web was commission chairman James A. Farley Jr. who King had recruited as an advisor. A fact-finding commission would later exonerate the second-generation NYSAC chairman of unethical behavior, but by then he was gone, forced to resign. His replacement was a fellow named Jack Prenderville who ran the Governor’s office when the Governor was out of town.
Jose Torres, who replaced Prenderville, would come under fire for approving the 1986 WBA heavyweight title fight between Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith. Both were managed by Carl King, the stepson of the promoter, Don King, which was a violation of a NYSAC rule. Making matters worse, the commission falsely accused Witherspoon of having marijuana in his system; his post-fight urine samples were mislabeled. To Torres’ credit, he did not sweep the matter under the rug when he discovered the “clerical error.”
Things were relatively quiet during the seven-and-a-half hitch of Torres’ successor Randy Gordon, but then the dam burst. During the gubernatorial reign of George Pataki (1995-2006), the commission, bloated with low-level functionaries, was repeatedly flogged as a cesspool of corruption and incompetence.
Pataki gave the chairman’s job to Floyd Patterson. A popular champion long after he retired, drawing loud ovations at the fights that he attended, Patterson had served on the commission before but, as chairman, he was nothing more than a figurehead. When he assumed the chairman’s role, he was already exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In 1998, while being cross-examined by lawyers working to overturn the ban on MMA, Patterson was unable to recall important events in his career, his office address, or the names of some of his closest aides. He resigned shortly thereafter.
The following year, there was a great brouhaha when the match at Madison Square Garden between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield was ruled a draw. Virtually everyone thought that Lewis was cheated. All three belts were on the line. The decision enabled Holyfield, who was under contract to Don King, to retain his WBA and IBF diadems.
When this newest controversy erupted, several investigative reporters were already on the case, deep into examinations that would uncover mounds of abuses. Thomas Hauser revealed that the office of Governor Pataki hijacked 67 ringside passes for the big fight. In the ensuing years, Hauser, a journalist, would be the agency’s most tenacious watchdog. According to his figures, during the Pataki years it cost 11 times more to regulate a boxing card in New York than in Nevada.
Pataki is a Republican, but Governors from both parties have left their fingerprints in the rubble. The current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, was cheered when he named David Berlin, a respected attorney, to the newly created post of Executive Director in March of 2014. It meant that someone would oversee the day-to-day operations of the commission. But Cuomo was quick to let Berlin go (officially he resigned) when his management style didn’t meld with the holdovers.
The new commission chairman, appointed this past Tuesday, is Ndidi Massay. A graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism who went on to earn a law degree from Notre Dame, Massay’s job history includes a stint as the Director of Business Affairs for ABC. She will need longer tentacles than her predecessors because her panel will soon expand to five members, a by-product of the recent decision by the New York legislature to lift the ban on MMA.
Ms. Massay appears well-qualified, but I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. The chairmanship of The New York State Athletic Commission is a reputation-smudger and I value my good name.
The New York State Athletic Commission