February 12, 2008
Representatives of Georgia wrestling got their opportunity to address members of the Georgia Senate today during a hearing held by the Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities on SB 413, the bill to regulate wrestling.
It ain’t over â€˜til it’s over. However, based on comments made by President Pro Temp of the Senate, Eric Johnson, the bill’s primary sponsor and a member of the RIU Committee, there is a zero chance of the bill in its original form making it to the Senate for a vote.
Johnson repeatedly stressed that it was not his intention to put independent wrestling promotions out of business. He called the bill “a work in progress,” noted how well informed the primary spokespersons for the wrestling side were regarding the bill, and requested a copy of the 12 rules proposed the by the Georgia Wrestling Promoters Advisory Committee.
The wrestling side also did what they do best – they entertained. One lobbyist called it the most entertaining hearing the RIU Committee has ever had the privilege of hosting.
The case for the bill was presented by Deputy Secretary of State Robb Simms and Kelly Farr, Executive Director of the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission. Simms said while the State clearly understood that wrestling was choreographed, they were concerned about the lack of any medical screening and lack of blood tests to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Simms made it clear that one of the driving forces was to remove the exemption granted to WWE under the current statute. Simms said the State had done their due diligence based on regulations in 26 other states. He discounted the possibility of WWE steering clear of Georgia, noting WWE was planning events in 12 other regulated states during 2008.
Farr was subjected to pointed questioning by Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, who was clearly not favorably inclined towards legislating more government. Farr claimed to have knowledge of a recent incident in which a twelve year-old participated in a wrestling show. Farr defended the 5% gate tax on the basis that it allowed the GAEC to keep the up front licensing costs lower, therefore making it less of a barrier to the promoters. Williams wanted to know if there were other entertainment forms that should be regulated. Farr said he could not intelligently address the question.
Johnson outlined the major points of the bill: the removal of WWE’s exemption, $1,000 licensing fee for promoters, attending physician and ambulance at all events, surety bond, and $50,000 life and health insurance policy. Johnson said the 5% tax was already in the law (only for boxing and MMA but not wrestling). Johnson noted that the rules related to the entertainment aspects of pro wrestling proposed by the GAEC were banned. He acknowledged that the section on referees had to be revised as it pertained to pro wrestling. Johnson also noted the high death rates among professional wrestlers. Farr quoted the cost of the health insurance as $2,250-2,750 per show.
Johnson emphasized that the bill defined an amateur as any wrestler earning less than $100 per match. Therefore, promoters paying wrestlers less than $100 would not be subject to regulation. Johnson indicated that the $100 figure was not set in stone.
John Taylor, the lawyer representing WWE in Georgia, was the first spokesperson for the wrestling industry. Taylor addressed the issue that the bill made no distinction between boxing, MMA and pro wrestling. He said the State had not done any fact finding. He said the SB 413 had no constituency except for the regulators. He likened it to meter maids lobbying for more parking meters. Taylor got heat from Johnson for talking about the referee stuff, after Johnson just got finished saying it would be revised. Taylor apologized. One of the Senators accused Taylor of trying to be entertaining.
Taylor strenuously objected to the language that allowed the ringside physician to suspend a wrestler on the spot with no appeal, using Ric Flair as an example. Taylor said Georgia was on the short list for WrestleMania in 2009 and 2010 and intimated that they wouldn’t run here because they couldn’t risk having a wrestler suspended. (NOTE: the bill actually would allow WWE to appoint its own physician). Taylor said the trend was towards deregulation of pro wrestling citing states such as California, Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and Nevada. Senator Ross Tolleson asked about WWE’s handling of testing for drugs and communicable diseases. Taylor cited WWE’s Wellness Policy. Johnson complimented WWE on the level of training their wrestlers demonstrated. Senator Henson asked about medical screening. Taylor said WWE had a physician in attendance and noted how wrestlers were subject to “peer review” by the agents and other wrestlers. Surprisingly, Taylor failed to mention the medical testing that caught MVP’s heart problem. Taylor said there had been no deaths in a WWE ring in 25 years.
Wrestler Simon Sermon called SB 413 a knee jerk reaction to the Benoit tragedy and big government at its most evil. Sermon said wrestling was his hobby, and his profession was being a private detective. Sermon ran down a list of injuries he had received. But it was a swerve, as he concluded by revealing that his injuries occurred while pursuing other “hobbies” like flag football and basketball. Sermon said he had never been seriously injured during his 7 year career.
Bill Behrens told the Committee that he was employed by Total Nonstop Action, “the Avis of the wrestling business”, and had promoted over 1,000 wrestling shows. Behrens said he had never seen a GAEC member in attendance at any of his shows. He pointed out the ambiguous language contained in the bill’s definition of pro wrestling which states that wrestling matches may have a predetermined outcome and wrestlers may not use their best effort to win.
Behrens presented many of the same arguments he did at the GAEC hearing in December – the nature of wrestling is different from MMA and boxing because there is no intent to hurt an opponent to win a purse. He contrasted wrestling with watching NWA Anarchy wrestler Slim J compete in MMA and how dangerous it was by comparison. He said the claims of major injuries related to pro wrestling in Georgia are unsubstantiated by any evidence. He stated that the Georgia 911 system has a 4 minute average response time, so having ambulances sitting at wrestling shows would be a waste of valuable resources.
Behrens brought up the 12 rules he presented to the GAEC on behalf of the wrestling advisory board. Johnson said he no knowledge of those rules and wanted to get a copy of them.
NWA Anarchy owner Jerry Palmer spoke as a trained paramedic and a wrestling promoter. Palmer compared wrestling to a sixth grade play put on by very big boys. He said the $1,000 per show permit fee, the MD and ambulance requirements, etc., would put him out of business. He said the gate tax was okay if the GAEC wanted 5% of his $1,000 gate. Palmer warned that if SB 413 became law, then it would be just the big promotions and the outlaw promotions left doing business.
Palmer said he didn’t mind regulation, but he did not appreciate extinction. He reiterated that the promoters’ efforts to collaborate with the GAEC went nowhere. Johnson complimented Palmer on his knowledge of the bill.
Just as he was at the GAEC hearing in December, Eddie (aka Iceberg) Chastain’s testimony was one of the highlights of the hearing. Iceberg offered to give the Committee members a worked punch of the type that are used in pro wrestling and a shoot punch like in boxing and let them judge which needed to be regulated.
Johnson concluded the meeting by thanking the wrestling side for their input and reassuring them that they were seeing the legislative process in action.