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Tailing the Komets

Sports and the law

Here's a story I wrote in 2000, that kind of pertains to the current discussion. Some things have changed, others have not. You can read it in the first comment.

Posted in: Komets


Blake Sebring
Wed, 10/13/2010 - 7:51pm


Hypothetical situation: There's a hockey game going on with a fight on the ice, and there is also a fight in the stands. The players go to the penalty box, the fans go to jail.

Or a baseball player gets hit by a pitch and gets mad and throws his bat at the pitcher, cracking him in the forehead. A man at work gets mad and takes a swing at his boss. The player gets kicked out of the game, the man goes to jail, even though technically, the citizen executed the lesser offense.

Or at a game, in any sport, a fan and a player get into a fight. The player swings first, but nothing happens to him and the fan goes to jail.

What's the difference?

The way athletes are treated by the legal system compared to average citizens will be examined much more in the next week. On Monday hockey player Marty McSorley went on trial in Vancouver for clubbing Donald Brashear with his stick during a Feb. 21 game. McSorley is charged with assault with a weapon and could face up to 14 years in prison.

For decades, law officials have left sports alone, allowing their governing bodies to set the punishment, but in the past few years more athletes are being charged with crimes for incidents during games. Professional sports leagues, and some fans, howl, saying they can take care of their own problems. Prosecuting attorneys say if the leagues' penalties were stiff enough these things would not be happening more often, and by the way, why should athletes be allowed to get away with something that would see the average joe thrown in jail?

``I think it's fair to say that general areas of law like tort and criminal law have been applied differently to sports,'' said Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute. ``Courts don't want to get into the business of policing sports unless the acts are egregious, and they don't want to chill competition. We do tolerate more during a course of a game than we do during everyday society.''

Many sports officials are afraid the McSorley trial may begin the process of criminal law having a more consistent impact on sports.

``We shouldn't exempt anybody from getting away with conduct that would ordinarily be prosecutable,'' says Mark Conrad, publisher of www.sportslawnews.com and a professor at Fordham University. ``We have different standards for different situations, and one thing that sports has is internal mechanisms for discipline, whereas general society does not.''

But incidents are increasing. A San Antonio high school basketball player who had a previous record was sentenced to five years in jail for purposely elbowing an opponent during a game. Tiny Limon was charged with aggravated assault after his blow broke the player's nose and gave the opponent a concussion.

A high school wrestler in Washington was sentenced to 30 days in jail last year after he head-butted an official, knocking the man unconscious.

In 1999, a 15-year-old hockey player in Chicago was left paralyzed after an opponent cross- checked him in the back at the end of a game. The offending player was charged with two counts of aggravated battery and later accepted a plea bargain.

The defendant's lawyer claimed the hit was a normal part of the game, and for decades athletes have used the ``assumption of risk'' defense. That means any person competing in an event can assume there is a risk of injury. That defense may not work now when athletes are being more seriously injured, especially if prosecutors can prove intent to injure. That will be the situation in the McSorley case.

``Someone has to say, `Look, this is behavior that is not going to be acceptable,' '' Allen County Prosecutor Bob Gevers said. ``How far are the leagues willing to let it go in the interest of what they perceive to be entertainment, and how serious is the injury going to be before they take note?''

Gevers says part of the problem is the way society seems to be more accepting of violence in all forms of media. Perhaps that progression is coming more to sports.

Despite more interest from the courts and prosecutors, it's unlikely charging athletes is going to become a weekly or even monthly event. Usually prosecutors go after players from visiting teams. Most prosecutors are wary of charging a home player and then taking the case in front of a jury that might include several fans.

There's also discussion among sports executives of where legal officials would stop. Once they begin charging athletes, who decides what is legal in a game? Leagues can take care of that by meting out severe enough penalties that players hesitate before taking action. The NHL suspended McSorley for 23 games, the league's harshest penalty ever for an on-ice incident, but a few weeks later there was another stick-swinging incident with New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer.

``Let's face it, professional athletes and collegiate athletes get special treatment, so there's that aspect of it, too,'' said Fort Wayne Sports Corp. President Art Mandelbaum, a lawyer with Miller Carson Boxberger & Murphy. ``You or I sitting in the stands at a game are not going to get special treatment. I'm not necessarily in favor of every time somebody gets hurt from what appears to be a dirty play or hit that you can run off the court and sue them. I think that in clear cases like that one (McSorley), there should be a line drawn to say we're not going to put up with this and maybe deter things from happening in the future.''

In other words, if professional sports leagues don't handle the problems, the legal system may feel it has to.

Wed, 10/13/2010 - 9:37pm

"In other words, if professional sports leagues don