Excerpted From: Bennett Liebman, Jim Crow & the Regulation of Boxing in New York State, 74 Syracuse Law Review 23 (2024) (238 Footnotes) (Full Document)

BennettLiebmanIt is an obvious statement that the regulation of boxing in the state of New York has been problematic. Over two centuries, it has been at times illegal, at times legal, at times regulated and at times unregulated. Scandals have been an all too frequent feature of the regulatory framework.

Yet New York boxing has been of extreme importance for the overall sport of boxing. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, New York City was the center of the boxing world, and Madison Square Garden was its capital. New York was the Mecca of boxing. New York through the 1911 Frawley Law also established the first government regulatory body--a state athletic commission--to oversee the sport. Before the passage of the Frawley Law, boxing was privately controlled, usually by boxing and athletic clubs.

While that athletic commission was terminated in 1917, when New York State for a three-year period outlawed boxing, the State Athletic Commission had an outsized influence on the governance of boxing throughout the nation. As the first regulatory commission, in the most populous state, which had the biggest fan interest in boxing, the statute creating the athletic commission and the rules and regulations of the athletic commission were routinely embraced and adopted by other state and their regulatory agencies. The principal focus of this article will be on one of the rules issued by the commission: its rule banning “mixed bouts,” fights between white and black boxers. Through that rule, the State Athletic Commission formally made Jim Crow part of the state's boxing codes.

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The journalist and writer Damon Runyan may have summed up the era of the banned mixed bouts best. He wrote:

There never was any good reason for this prohibition. It had no basis of logic or justice. It was merely an echo of disfavor supposed to have been brought upon black boxers generally by Jack Johnson when he was heavyweight champion of the world. It was mainly a lot of “bunk.”

It was more than a lot of bunk. It largely destroyed the careers of a large number of top black boxers, and it discouraged a whole generation of blacks from participating in boxing. It hurt the quality of boxing and stained the quality of American life for decades by making a mockery of equal justice and opportunity not just in New York State but throughout the nation. The color line drawn by the Athletic Commission established a State-backed system of separate but unequal sports regulation. Nobody can look at the action of the New York State Athletic Commission in 1913 in banning mixed bouts as anything other than cruel and evil. Utilizing the masquerade of protecting public decency and order, the State Athletic Commission engaged in bald-faced prejudice and race hatred.

Bennett Liebman is a Government Lawyer in Residence at the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.