Coaching Today

Athletic Zeal or Criminal Act_MH 

By Frank Del Favero, Ph.D.; Nathan M. Roberts, J.D., Ph.D.; and Robert L. LeBlanc, Ed. D.***

Part I of this article described the emerging issue of potential criminal exposure for overzealous acts on the athletic field. It highlighted the problems reported in the media and raised the question of what risks are actually assumed by athletes when they compete in athletic events. Part II addresses some potential statutes that could be used by district attorneys to prosecute actions committed during or related to the athletic event and the perspective of an experienced district attorney.

Criminal Statutes 

While all states have criminal statutes, the exact language of the statutes varies from state to state. As examples, following are several Louisiana statutes that could serve as the basis for filing criminal actions against alleged perpetrators in Louisiana.

  • Negligent Homicide L.R.S. 14:32 – the killing of a human being by criminal negligence.
  • Negligent injuring L.R.S. 14:39 – The inflicting of any injury upon the person of another by criminal negligence
  • Criminal negligence L.R.S. 14:12 – Criminal negligence exists when, although neither specific nor general criminal intent is present, there is such disregard of the interest of others that the offender’s conduct amounts to a gross deviation below the standard of care expected to be maintained by a reasonably careful man under like circumstances.
  • Simple Battery L.R.S. 14: 35 – A battery committed without the consent of the victim.
  • Battery Defined L.R.S. 14:33 – the intentional use of force or violence upon the person of another.

One does not have to be an attorney to realize that the statutes cited above could, with few exceptions, easily and reasonably be applied to excessively violent and flagrant behavior which results in injury and which unfortunately occurs somewhat regularly in scholastic, collegiate and professional sports venues across the nation.

District Attorney Perspective 

Only district attorneys can file criminal charges against a person. A coach or player or parent or organization must work with the district attorney to convince him or her to file these charges. In making this determination, the primary task of the district attorney is to determine if the actions rise to the level of criminal negligence or battery. The district attorney must also decide if the conduct amounted to a gross deviation from the standard of care expected to be maintained by a reasonably careful individual under similar circumstances.

In a conversation with an experienced Louisiana district attorney, the authors learned that there are several contributing factors that would affect a district attorney’s decision on whether to prosecute someone for an alleged “sports crime.” These factors include:

  • The district attorney’s knowledge and experience of the sport in question
  • The district attorney would present both sides of the case to the Grand Jury, although required by law to present only the prosecuting side’s case
  • The timing of the event where the alleged criminal act occurred. (If it occurred at or near the end of a season when playoff games are at stake, the district attorney would be less likely to prosecute because the “passion level” of the coaches and players is much higher.)
  • Determining when, in relation to the whistle blowing the end of the play, the alleged criminal act took place. If it occurred well after the end of play, then the district attorney would be more likely to prosecute than if the alleged act took place very shortly after the whistle.
  • The age of the players would also influence the decision to prosecute. Older players with more experience would be held to higher standards and expectations than younger, less experienced players.
  • The district attorney would also review the athletic association’s guidelines and rules.
  • The district attorney would review accounts and descriptions by game officials while placing the most credibility in their findings and judgments because they are trained and are supposed to be unbiased.
  • The district attorney would place a great deal of value on a video record of the incident.
  • The seriousness and extent of the injuries inflicted on the victim would also influence the decision to prosecute.
  • The alleged crime would have to be a serious one before the district attorney would utilize valuable judicial time and resources.

The district attorney concluded the conversation by raising the concern that if actions that occur during sporting events regularly become the subject of criminal actions, there will be a chilling effect on the sport. Players would stop short and avoid anything remotely close to criminal and that would change the way many sports are played. He did not believe that was the direction the criminal court system was headed (other options exist such as civil actions), but did agree an extreme case would be reviewed and could be determined to be criminal, but it would have to be well beyond reasonable.


In spite of rules changes aimed at protecting the well-being of competitors and advances in the design of sports equipment, student and professional athletes alike are experiencing increasing numbers of serious injuries that occur during the heat of competition. Unfortunately, many of these injuries have life-altering and/or career-ending results.

For the most part, these injuries are seen as part of the risks encountered while participating in contact sports. However, cursory viewing of sports information channels such as ESPN, as well as the local and national TV networks, suggests that there are increasing instances of violent behavior on the playing fields that easily exceed the bounds that define acceptable standards of “sportsmanlike” conduct. To the average spectator, the behaviors in question appear to be intentional, flagrant and excessively violent. Many of these actions, if placed under scrutiny of local and state laws, would constitute violent criminal acts.

While the authors believe that aggressive play is both exciting to watch and a necessary element of competition, something should be done that would discourage extremely violent behavior that is committed with the intent to harm.

The authors hope that the findings from this study could be used by law enforcement personnel, coaches, players, officials, and school and league officials to help them to enforce the laws of the land and to create and implement guidelines and policies that do not diminish the excitement of competition. At the same time, there is the hope that this sends a message to everyone that intentional, flagrant and exceedingly violent behavior on the playing field cannot and will not be tolerated.


La. Rev. Stat. Sec. 14:12 (West 2010)
La. Rev. Stat. Sec. 14:32 (West 2010)
La. Rev. Stat. Sec 14:33 (West 2010)
La. Rev. Stat. Sec 14:35 (West 2010)
La. Rev. Stat. Sec 14:39 (West 2010)
Interview with Mike Harson, District Attorney for the 15th Judicial District, Louisiana. (June 14, 2010) 

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.




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