Pa. Sports Panel On The Ropes

Posted: November 22, 1987

SCRANTON — Elbowed in the back, poked in the eyeballs and kneed in the gut, Koko B. Ware - he of the purple tights, white boots and live parrot mascot - was clearly having a rough night.

"Outlaw" Ron Bass, a 275-pound opponent in cowboy boots, was relentless in his pummeling, despite hisses and curses and rolled-up paper cups tossed his way by nearly 4,000 screaming fans in the Catholic Youth Center here. It was the opening bout of the World Wrestling Federation's (WWF) Intercontinental Title card.

Koko took a beating last week. The same could be said for state officials in charge of regulating professional wrestling and amateur and professional boxing in Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, the House State Government Committee knocked the 58-year-old State Athletic Commission into the ropes, recommending that it be abolished. The committee accused the agency of being outmoded and ineffectual.

For its part, the Athletic Commission insists it has always been the poor stepchild of state government, getting little attention and little money.

But if the full General Assembly agrees with the committee's recommendation, the commission won't get up for the count. Professional wrestling would become largely deregulated in Pennsylvania, as it is in 21 other states. Boxing would come under the auspices of the state Health Department.

"It's a completely dysfunctional state agency," said Rep. Marvin E. Miller Jr. (R., Lancaster), minority chairman of the committee, speaking of the commission. "They don't follow the mandates, they don't meet as required and they use heavy-handed tactics in the field."

For instance, the commission requires that its own referees, timekeepers and announcers be part of the wrestling events, even though promoters would rather supply their own officials, who are part of the act.

"Wrestling is not a combative sport. Professional wrestling is actually a performance. State referees are not needed," said Rep. Gordon J. Linton (D., Phila.), a member of the committee.

The commission sends deputies - who must be paid by the promoters - to events to monitor security, to make sure wrestlers and fans don't injure one another and to collect the state's proper license fees.

But critics say those lofty duties are fallacious.

"They go there, they sit at ringside, they bring their friends over the barricade . . . and they watch the match. That's how wrestling is regulated in Pennsylvania," said Richard J. Santorum, a lobbyist for Titan Sports Inc., the Connecticut firm that operates the WWF.

But James Binns, the Philadelphia lawyer who chairs the Athletic

Commission, said that his agency was valuable. He noted that the traditional practice of wrestlers cutting themselves on the forehead with razor blades to

draw blood and excite crowds has been stopped.

"It was I and no one else who stopped the wrestlers from cutting themselves," Binns said. "Some of these guys have foreheads that look like raised atlas maps."

Santorum said promoters would not condone real violence or self-mutilation, nor would its security people permit fans to become too raucous.

"These people are their income," Santorum said. "If Hulk Hogan gets hurt, that's a pretty big loss to the WWF."

Miller said safeguards against violence were part of the proposed law that would terminate the Athletic Commission.

In addition, he said local criminal and civil penalties would apply to keep promoters from failing to deliver events as scheduled - a difficult job, said Binns, that has kept him busy.

"The bottom line is that there are going to be incidents where people are taking their family out for entertainment that doesn't exist," Binns said.

Also as part of abolishing the commission, the legislative panel has proposed decreasing the gross receipts fee charged by the state from 5 percent to 2 percent.

In the 1986-87 fiscal year, the state took in $227,087 in revenue - the

bulk of which went to pay for boxing.

"Boxing would become extinct. There would be no amateur boxing," Binns said. "The inner-city kids would be devastated."

But John P. Krill Jr., another lobbyist for Titan, which staged 77 events in Pennsylvania last year, said that reducing the tax might lure more events to the state.

"It is more likely the state will gain revenue," said Krill. "One of the effects right now of the present system is that it discourages major card events from being held in Pennsylvania."

Like Binns, the Health Department is also concerned about boxing, although for a different reason. If the legislative proposal becomes law, the department would have to regulate boxing, including supplying the physicians to evaluate participants.

Secretary of Health N. Mark Richards said that the sport of boxing went against the "mission" of the department - that is, to promote health, not to condone a sport whose participants try to "render the opponent unconscious."

"That is a savage sport that has no place in the department," Richards said.

Unfortunately for the Health Department, it neglected to present its views to the committee until a few minutes before Wednesday's meeting. The committee had been working on the Athletic Commission issue for four months.

"I couldn't care less what the secretary wants," committee chairman Rep. Frank L. Oliver (D., Phila.), said in an interview. "Where has he been? Here's a guy who comes over at the last minute and tries to undo things."

Richards admitted that his department was in error by failing to make known its feelings.

On the other hand, the WWF, the largest promoter of wrestling in the country, did its lobbying homework with relish.

The WWF helped prepare the actual wrestling bill, Santorum and Krill said, and treated more than 20 people to complimentary tickets, hot hors d'oeuvres, beer and soda at Hersheypark Arena during a wrestling exhibition Sept. 23.

"We wanted the people to see for themselves what they were going to talk about," Krill said.

Santorum said the guests, some of whom had their photographs taken with Hulk Hogan, included staff members from the Governor's Office of Legislative Affairs and the Department of State, which oversees the Athletic Commission.

Oliver, the chairman of the State Government Committee, was among those who attended, although he said he didn't know the WWF had provided the tickets. He said he had received the ticket from "a friend," whom he declined to identify.

Stanley H. Mitchell, chief counsel of the committee, said the WWF hospitality did not affect the recommendation.

"You have lobbyists taking these guys to dinner every night," Mitchell said, speaking generally of legislators. "This runs rampant up here - baskets of fruit, grape juice. But their votes aren't tarnished by that. Maybe it does go overboard, but that's your government at work."

Except for those affiliated with the commission, few people apparently oppose the move to deregulate professional wrestling.

Rich Roberts, a spokesman for Hersheypark Arena, which seats 10,000 people, said his facility did not require Athletic Commission oversight, although it gets it on such matters as security and sound systems.

"We believe the regulation of professional wrestling is an anachronism," he said. "If we are able to handle security and the P.A. system for basketball games . . . and other entertainment events, we can certainly handle it for wrestling."

Two small wrestling promoters who asked not to be identified said they approved of abolishing the commission and its regulations. They did express concern with a proposal to raise the surety bonds of promoters from $3,000 to $10,000, which might not harm the WWF but would be tough on small promoters.

As for professional wrestling fans, the proposals appear to matter little.

David Belcher, 26, of Scranton, who attends wrestling exhibitions and watches them on television at midnight every Friday and Saturday, said he had no fears of increased fan violence or overexuberant wrestlers.

"It's entertainment," he said. "If you sit farther back, it looks more real. If you sit up close, you can see all the acts. But it's just family entertainment."

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