By Frank Del Favero, Ph.D.; Nathan M. Roberts, J.D., Ph.D.; and Robert L. LeBlanc, Ed.D.
“All is fair in love and war.” This cliché is not entirely true. Humanity has determined that some actions so exceed the bounds of human acceptability that we have created war crime tribunals and divorce courts to determine what is in reality legally fair in love and war.
The competitive sports world is another arena where actions that would be considered criminal have generally been tolerated by tradition with only a referee to levy sports penalties. However, the emerging issue of whether athletes or coaches can or should be held criminally liable for their actions if they exceed the bounds of reasonableness deserves exploration.
In addition to criminal liability, both coaches and school administrators, in today’s increasingly litigious world, often find themselves involved in costly and time-consuming civil liability court actions. Sadly, even in cases where neither criminal nor civil liability are found to have merit, the careers and reputations of athletes, coaches, and school administrators are often irreparably damaged. It is for these reasons that all of the stakeholders (student-athletes, coaches, school administrators and officials) have an understanding of those parts of the criminal and civil codes that could be applicable in cases involving alleged “sports crimes.”
The goal is to help school administrators and coaches become aware of the need to review policies and guidelines (or create them if they do not exist in an organization) that deal with the conduct of coaches and athletes on the practice and playing fields. The overriding objective of these guidelines and policies is to help stakeholders avoid placing themselves in a situation that may put them at risk of being charged as a perpetrator of an alleged sports crime.
These potential sports crimes will be addressed in three sections. First, the media stories that report on increased violence in sports will be briefly reviewed. Second, criminal statutes that could be utilized by district attorneys to prosecute unreasonable actions that occur in the sporting arena will be examined. The third and final section will examine the opinions of an experienced district attorney regarding methods used by district attorneys to determine which sports-related activities rise to the level of criminal actions.
The Emerging Issue
When athletes choose to play a competitive sport, they assume the normal, obvious risks of injuries associated with that sport. The key question here becomes at what point does the action exceed the assumption of risk associated with the sport?
On the civil side of the law, Hammond v. Board of Education of Carroll County (1994) provides some guidance. Hammond was a female high school football player who was injured in the first school scrimmage. She sued the school board alleging the school failed to warn her of the potential risk of injury in playing football and that if she had been warned, she would not have played. The court noted that football is a body-contact sport that requires the participants to come into contact with each other and the ground with great force. Body bruises, scraps and broken bones are inherent in the game. Basically, the court held that participants know the risks of injury and can’t complain later.
However, in Turcotte v. Fell (1986), it was noted that assumption of the risk while an integral part of athletics, it is the normal risks that are reasonably foreseeable that are assumed, not those that are reckless or intentional. Accordingly, for civil purposes, an argument can be made that actions that occur on the field or court that are reckless and/or intentional and not reasonably foreseeable could form the basis of a civil action.
The key, of course, is the definition of reasonable and reckless. No player assumes the risk of, or consents to, criminal conduct simply by engaging in an activity where excessive harm is a possibility. Could any action on the court or on the field be so reckless and unreasonable as to meet a criminal standard?
Scholastic, collegiate and professional sports have trained and certified officials to regulate the game, identify fouls or violations, and assess the penalties; however, the authority of the official to assess penalties is limited only to the game and league. State athletic associations are limited to suspending or revoking eligibility and occasionally assessing monetary fines on the school, and in the case of professional sports, on individual players and coaches. Enforcement of greater penalties, including criminal actions, is left to the local district attorney.
The first thing that a district attorney must do is to establish a detailed description of exactly what constitutes a “sports crime.”
- Are high sticking in a hockey game, throwing a baseball at the batter’s head, late hits on a quarterback, or a flagrant foul on a point guard as he is driving to the hoop to be considered “sports crimes” or are penalties assessed by game officials for these infractions adequate?
- Does it matter if the behavior is intentional or flagrant?
- Does it matter whether the action causes injury?
- Does the extent and seriousness of the injury come into consideration?
As evidence that intentional and/or flagrant acts by competitors on the playing field are relatively common, the June 8, 2010, the National Coaches’ Survey reported (www.nationalcoachsurvey.org) that in a survey of thousands of high school and college coaches compiled by Manhattanville College’s National Coach Survey Research Center, over half of the respondents believed that one of their players had been intentionally injured by an opponent.
Rick Wolff, a noted sports parenting expert and host of WFAN’s “Sporting Edge,” said in the survey report that “One of the basic tenants of good sportsmanship is, of course, that nobody wants to see either themselves or one’s opponent be injured during the course of competition. As such, if athletes are deliberately trying to hurt others—this is a serious matter that needs to be addressed immediately.” A sampling of respondent comments included:
- “I have witnessed an opponent intentionally kick one of my players after the ball has left his feet for at least five seconds and inflict a career-ending ACL injury. It was on tape and the opposing coach refused to hold his player accountable for the assault.”
- “We have had players injured intentionally by our opponents. Some of the injuries are as follows: head butt resulted in eight stitches above the eye, sucker punches (resulting in concussions), double forearm shivers, sucker elbows, kicking a keeper when he was down (resulting in a 1½-inch crack in the shin).”
- “The most egregious example of another player intentionally injuring another was in a softball game when, upon arriving at first base, after catcher’s interference was called, the batter (now runner) told our first baseman that she was sorry that she hit the catcher on the arm with her bat, but her coach told her to do it.”
Based on the survey results, it appears that at least in some instances, players are intentionally hurting other players. Is this a risk that is reasonably assumed by athletes? Should these intentional and flagrant acts be treated as a criminal act? Should coaches who direct their players to purposely hit and injure their competitors be held accountable for the actions of their players?
An example that suggests women are not immune from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct involves the Baylor basketball team. Courtney Linehan, writing for the Texas Tech Raiders, describes an incident that took place during a women’s basketball game between Texas Tech and Baylor. Two players were involved in a foul and the Baylor player who was fouled took offense and punched the Texas Tech player. The Baylor player was ejected and the Texas Tech player suffered a broken nose.
A second basketball incident involved Temple University. In a game against St. Joseph’s, coach John Cheney was not happy with the way St. Joseph was setting picks so he sent in rarely used 6-foot-8, 250-pound Nehemiah Ingram to send a message to the opposing team. Ingram fouled out in six minutes and fouled one player so hard he broke his arm. Coach Cheney was suspended by Temple for several games. St. Joseph stated everyone must recognize that this crossed the line (ESPN.com).
One of the more recent incidents involved the homicide trial of a high school football coach in Kentucky. ABC news reported that the school’s football coach was accused of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the death of a 15-year-old lineman. The young man collapsed while practicing and died three days later after his body temperature reached 107 degrees. Prosecutors contended the coach forced his players to repeatedly run wind sprints on the day in question despite a heat index of 104 degrees. It was further alleged the coach forbade his players from drinking water during practice. Although the coach was acquitted, the case illustrates the emergence of an accountability movement addressing potentially unreasonable athletic behavior (Horng & Schabner, 2009).
Another incident is recorded on (Youtube.com) and illustrates what is alleged to be a head butt by a player wearing a helmet against a player not wearing a helmet. The incident took place away from the action of the play while the victim was already lying on the ground. The parents of the injured player are seeking criminal charges against the player who injured their son. The athletic association suspended the player for two games as a result of the action. Is this action criminal?
In determining whether any of these instances may be criminal, statutes that could potentially be applicable need to be reviewed. Further, an interview by an experienced district attorney of all the parties involved in an incident needs to be conducted in order to begin the process of identifying factors that are important in determining if extreme behaviors that take place during athletic events could result in criminal action. Part II of this article will highlight several potential criminal statutes and summarize the interview conducted with an experienced district attorney.
Hammond v. Board of Education of Carroll County, 639 A. 2d 223 (Md. App. 1994).
Turcotte v. Fell, 502 N.E. 2d 964 (1986).
(2005). Chaney sent player to foul. ESPN.com. Retrieved October 14, 2010 Sports.espn.go.com.
(2009). A COACH CLEARED. People, 72(14), 8. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database, October 4, 2010.Horng, E. and Schabner, D. (2009) Coach on Trial for Homicide in Player’s Heat Death-ABCnews.go.com. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
Kelly, J. (2010) Coaches report that injuries caused by player-to-player contact is often intentional. Nationalcoachsurvey.org. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
Linehan, C. (2010). Linehan: Griner’s punch a black eye for Baylor. March 4, 2010. Retrieved October 14, 2010 Retrieved from www.redraisers.com.
Youtube.com (2010). H.S. Football Player Faces Charges After Alleged Head-Butt. Viewed October 4, 2010 at (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrm8zgXRC-c).
About the Authors:
Dr. Frank Del Favero is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a former principal in New York. Dr. Nathan Roberts is department chair and professor of educational leadership at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Dr. Robert LeBlanc is a professor and former dean of the College of Education at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.