AS I SEE IT 12/17: One day until the death knell of Georgia wrestling

AS I SEE IT
Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets
PWBTS.com

Again this week, I'm turning over my column to a report from Rich Tate over at GeorgiaWrestlingHistory.com and a report on the history of regulation of professional wrestling in Georgia, as we're on the eve of proposed regulations that would end professional wrestling as its known in the state of Georgia.

A number of independent promoters who have been running for some years in Georgia have stated point blank that shows being run this weekend will be their last shows in the state of Georgia if these regulations are passed.

So read what Rich has to say on the subject, and we'll all have to wait for tomorrow's hearing in Georgia.

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REGULATING WRESTLING IN GEORGIA

December 12, 2007

With the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission poised to enact regulations that will, in all likelihood, bring an end to independent promotion of professional wrestling in the Peach State, it is time to take a look at the history of efforts to regulate wrestling in Georgia and the legal basis for the measures proposed by the GAEC.

In our research over the history of wrestling and boxing in Georgia, the earliest references to a regulating commission dates back to as early as December 1926. Claude E. Buchanan has been referenced as being the chairman of the Atlanta Boxing Commission, along with two other members, Al H. Martin and Bob Parker, throughout the period of 1926-28, when John Contos was the only promoter of wrestling events in Atlanta proper.

In January 1927, the ABC expanded to include wrestling. It was reported that the commission collected $2,438.00 during the first year which was generated through five percent of gate receipts of both boxing and wrestling events.

In 1932, Henry Weber was running weekly wrestling shows in Atlanta at the famed Municipal Auditorium, much as he had been since he first acquired a license from the commission in 1929. But Judge Virlyn B. Moore of the Fulton County Superior Court pulled the rug out from under him by invalidating the injunction Weber filed against another promoter trying to run at the venue.

It was learned that the Atlanta Boxing Commission only sanctioned Weber as a promoter, and that a city ordinance only gave the commission the authority to accept or reject a bout, but no voice in venue assignments. Within a month of the court ruling, Atlanta Mayor James L. Key disbanded the commission. During Keyís last year in office, he was accused in a scandal where it was alleged he spent only an hour in the office each day. It should be noted that the controversial Key was largely responsible for the remodeling of the Municipal Auditorium in the 1930s.

The commission resurfaced again after Key lost his bid for a fifth term to William B. Hartsfield (for whom the Atlanta airport was later named). These historical references to commission involvement do not seem to be in the worked sense prevalent in modern wrestling.
Programs from the late 1940s acknowledge a "commission doctor" named Dr. Samuel Green. It would appear that this physician was supplied and funded by the commission as opposed to the promoter. References to commission doctors continue throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

We found no record of commission activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, by the mid 1970s, wrestlers and referees Ė but not promotions or promoters Ė were required to have a license. They were required to have an annual physical in order to receive the license, at which time they paid a $5.00 fee.

As best as we could determine, all of the above reference to regulation of Georgia wrestling were limited to the city of Atlanta.
Georgia was the last state to have a boxing commission. In 1970, Muhammad Ali was granted a license to box in Georgia because it was the only state in America without one. We were unable to determine precisely when the State Boxing Commission came into being.
In any case, the State Boxing Commission morphed into the GAEC on July 1, 2001, when House Bill 538 was enacted into law. Georgia had become a battleground for the acceptance of Mixed Martial Arts, which would have been banned by the original version of HB 538. The final version outlawed "unarmed combat" and allowed MMA shows, so long as they were sanctioned by the International Sports Combat Federation.

The billís sponsor, State Representative Alan Powell, also included the first attempt at state regulation of pro wrestling, but Dusty Rhodes, who was operating Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling at the time, and Bill Behrens of NWA Wildside fought those proposals, and the Senate voted against their inclusion in the final bill.

The version passed into law defined pro wrestling as "a staged performance of fighting and gymnastic skills and techniques by two or more human beings who are not required to use their best efforts in order to win and for which the winner may have been selected before the performance commences" and specifically excluded it from regulation.

The Commission consisted of five members appointed to four year terms by the Governor. No qualifications or criteria for becoming a commission member were included.

In 2004, Powell authored legislation intended to give to the GAEC broad authority over all organizations involved in promoting MMA and pro wrestling. House Bill 558 provided for a $1,000.00 annual licensure fee for each promotion and unspecified "oversight fees". The maximum permit fee per "match, contest or exhibition" was set at $250.00. These fees were an expense that independent promoters could ill afford with gates typically falling below $1,500.00.

The bill passed the Georgia House, but the wrestling community banded together to fight the provisions related to pro wrestling as it headed to the Senate. The billís sponsors received ugly phone calls from irate fans. Bill Behrens and Phil Heffner (NAWA) met with Powell and then GAEC member Les Schneider, to air their concerns. The meeting ended with an agreement to limit regulation of pro wrestling to a $100.00 annual licensure fee and periodic reporting to the commission by each promotion. However, the 2003-04 legislative session ended before the bill could make its way through the Senate.

The efforts to revise the laws regulating MMA and pro wrestling were revived by the Georgia General Assembly in 2005 in the form of Senate Bill 224. It passed with an amendment whereas no promotion exceeding $25 million annual revenue would be regulated, which currently exempts only World Wrestling Entertainment.

The law that went into effect on July 1, 2005, did, in fact, contain the provisions agreed to by Powell and Schneider, but another paragraph was added.

It reads as follows: "The commission shall have the duty to safeguard the public health, to protect competitors, and to provide for competitive matches by requiring licensed organizations to abide by rules promulgated by the commission for basic minimum medical and safety requirements based on the nature of the activity and the anticipated level of physical conditioning and training of competitors."

It is the language in the final sentence that presumably empowers the GAEC to enforce the most toxic aspects of their November 16 rule proposals. But are these stiff regulations what Georgia lawmakers intended?

The regulation of pro wrestling, MMA, and boxing were intertwined by the 2001 law that brought the GAEC into existence.

The commission is taking the stance that for the protection of the wrestlers, pro wrestling should be regulated in a manner similar to the real athletic competition of MMA and boxing, where the nature of the activity is to hurt your opponent, knock him out, or make him submit, and competitors are trained to injure their opponents.

The wrestling community is taking the position that regulation is unnecessary because pro wrestling is staged entertainment, a pseudo sport, in which the participants are trained to protect each in other in the process of reaching a predetermined outcome.

Additionally, the provision that requires wrestling promotions to pay five percent of gate receipts to the GAEC as a "regulatory fee" appears to be an attempt to circumvent the intent of the lawmakers.

Title 43-4b-Article 51 (c) states "the annual fee for wrestling promotion licensure is $100.00. There shall be no permit fee for matches, contests, or exhibitions of wrestling." Wrestling is distinguished from boxing ($1,000.00 licensure fee) and MMA ($500.00 licensure fee). MMA and boxing shows are both subject to $250.00 permit fees.

We broke the proposed rule down in detail in a previous article. Suffice to say, the rule would severely alter the wrestling product in ways that would significantly reduce its appeal to todayís fans. Additionally, the requirement of a ringside doctor, two EMTs, and an ambulance at every show would be a financial death blow to Georgia independent promotions, none of which average more than $2,000.00 in gate receipts.

It is an open question as to whether the commissioners are qualified to regulate boxing, MMA, or wrestling. The lack of any criteria speaks volumes. A spot on the commission appears to be nothing more than a political appointment.

Cary Ichter is a member of the GAEC. As an attorney, he also represents Michael Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit. Ichter is on the record stating that he will work to have the WWE's exemption from regulation removed from Georgia law. Ironically, if Ichterís agenda came to pass, the regulations heís backing as a member of the GAEC would give WWE a virtual monopoly on pro wrestling in the state of Georgia.

Representatives of Georgia pro wrestling are suggesting that Ichterís dual role is a conflict of interest. In essence, Georgia law 43-4B-8 states that no member of the commission may contract with any person who has a financial interest in any activity regulated by this commission.

Whether it is an intentional outcome, or simply ignorance of the business they have taken it upon themselves to regulate, the net effect of the GAECís form of regulation will end the 120 year history of that business in Georgia.

Kelly Farr, Executive Director of the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission, formerly known as the Georgia State Boxing Commission, released information on Friday, November 16, 2007, pertaining to a set of proposed items in which they desire to implement and enforce upon all professional wrestling promotions intending to present events in the state of Georgia.

The board currently consists of Chairman James J. Biello, Christopher Harris, Phil Hunnicutt, Cary Ichter, and Dr. Wayne Bloodworth. However, any and all communications to the commission should be addressed or directed toward Mr. Farr via email or phone at (404) 656-2868.

A meeting providing a public forum to discuss these items has been scheduled for Tuesday, December 18, 2007, at 2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive, West Tower Suite 814, in Atlanta, GA. Anyone wishing to speak will be allowed five minutes.

The commission has suggested that lengthy documentation sent in prior to the meeting for review and consideration be in as early as possible. They have also stated that any oration during the meeting that is repetitious will be cut off, with a request to move onto a new subject of debate.

It is our understanding that a vote on what exactly will remain in the final regulations will be held upon the conclusion of the meeting, and results of that vote will be made known at that time. The regulations as approved by the board will go into effect twenty days from that date, equating to Monday, January 7, 2008.

TNA's Bill Behrens had this to say following his meeting with Farr:

"I met with Mr. Farr. The commission did nearly all of it's "due diligence" outside the state of Georgia, rather than learning what, if any, problems exist in the State Of Georgia. The rules proposed were picked at random from rules in Pennsylvania, Missouri, & Kentucky even though in those states some of the rules were passed as law or were created by commissions in those states based on specific law that allowed such rules.

The Georgia commission is interpreting the Georgia Law as granting them sweeping powers, which a reading of the law suggests was not the intent of the lawmakers. Regardless of flaws in the regulations that Mr Farr and I addressed, he and commission seem not to care and won't even make easy changes, like letting a ref's 5 count stay a 5 count (they want a ten count for unknown reasons), and even though he agreed refs have no real authority, the language of the regulations treats refs as if they do, and even suggests they are held "responsible" to uphold the Commission's rules.

No effort was made by the commission to determine any impact on the Georgia 911 system by requiring ambulances at all shows, which on a busy Saturday in Georgia could be as many as 10 ambulances. We are in the process of getting comment from various Georgia 911 supervisors. And the ambulance rule came from a Pennsylvania law (not rule), that understands the impact on the 911 system and at least allows no ambulance if there is one within 5 miles of a show and they are notified the show is happening. Georgia's commission removed that, suggesting it would be tough for them to check. I reminded Mr Farr that all he needed was a contact name & phone # to check on whether a promoter notified an EMT unit, where he'd have to visit each show to see an ambulance. Mr Farr suggested calling was too difficult.

Mr. Farr suggests he and the commission only want to protect wrestlers and fans in Georgia, but the rules only really add cost to a wrestling show, and Mr Farr & the commission have made no effort to determine whether there are any real problems they should address.

It was easier just to piece rules together by what other states did, several different states all following different law, than to actually do due diligence in the State of Georgia. Mr Farr said they researched on the internet and named one wresting site as their research, http://www.georgiawrestling.tk , and he suggested they visited other wrestling promotion sites but when asked couldn't recall any. They also heard from "concerned" promoters and former promoters, none of whom he wanted to name.

The hearing is next Tuesday, November 18 at 11AM.

Should the rules pass it is likely promoters will seek legal council, and attempt to get an injunction to hold the rules at abeyance, until a judge rules on the commission's interpretation of the Georgia law."


Until next time...

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