Crimes of Moral Turpitude and Combat Sports in Massachusetts

Oh the multi-jurisdictional legal joys that the UFC gets to struggle with!

Not only did the UFC run into issues with Massachusetts requiring foreign combatants to have Social Security Numbers for their upcoming show in Boston, the latest issue that has cropped up involves licencing combatants who have been convicted or charged with certain criminal offences.

Leaving aside the politically charged background that gave rise to the complaint, the Massachusetts Athletic Commission was asked to deny Chael Sonnen’s application for a licence due to a conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude.

Although the complaint did not derail Sonnen’s licencing the issue peaked my interest for legal analysis.

Under Massachusetts law, unarmed combatants need to be licensed.   The state Athletic Commission has the power to deny or suspend a licence for a variety of reasons.

Section 20.05 of the Regulations states that “a licence issued by the Commission may be suspended if the holder is arrested or convicted on a charge involving moral turpitude“.  Section 6.13 allows the Commission to deny a licence for the same reason.

In the US being convicted of a crime of moral turpitude can indeed be a reason for revoking or denying professional licences (see this case for example where a law licence was suspended due to acts involving moral turpitude) so such a clause is likely a valid restriction on combat sports.  So what is a crime of moral turpitude?  In Chael Sonnen’s case he was convicted of money laundering.  The Regulations don’t appear to define a crime of moral turpitude so that leads us to the common law interpretation of this phrase.  Immigration law is the field with perhaps the most interpretation of the phrase.  Looking to the US State Department for guidance they define crimes involving “fraud”, “larceny” and those involving “intent to harm persons or things” as being “the most common elements involving moral turpitude”.

So, does this mean Chael does not get a licence?  Not necessarily.  Arrest or conviction for a crime of moral turpitude does not automatically take away a licence.  This simply triggers the Commission’s discretion to deny or suspend a licence.  The magic word is “may“.  The State Athletic Commissioner reportedly provided the following statement addressing their reason for dismissing this complaint -“The Commission also considered complaints regarding his reputation and character but concluded no information the Commission received should preclude Sonnen’s licensure“.

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