Sports violence has become a part of our culture from a long line of hostilities that include a 1977 headline punch thrown by the Lakers’ Kermit Washington, Mike Tyson’s ear biting episode, and a 2006 cleat slashing of an NFL player’s face.
On-field brutality at the high school level is especially disturbing. As the New Year unfolded, the story of hockey player Neal Goss was widely revisited in the Chicago press and is a story that deserves national attention. Goss was only 15 years old when he was paralyzed while playing ice hockey for a nationally recognized high school in Winnetka, Illinois. But his fate was no accident, and that begs a dangerous issue. As the game ended, a player from the opposing team skated the length of the ice and viciously checked Goss from behind, blind-siding him into the boards three to five seconds after the final buzzer. Goss was paralyzed, the aggressor was not injured. This was in 1999, but Goss forged ahead and, even though in a wheelchair and in need of almost constant attention, he managed to leave home to attend and eventually graduate college—a Herculean accomplishment.
The aggressor was charged with aggravated battery, one of very few sports related prosecutions nationally, and he pleaded “no contest” to a lesser misdemeanor, receiving probation. Take away four seconds, however, and the player may not have been charged at all. The case narrowly survived because the attack happened a few seconds after the game and therefore was not preempted by a sports immunity afforded by courts in most states.
As a society we have given athletes free reign to maim, paralyze, even kill each other—just so long as it occurs on the field of play. But why? Why turn a blind eye when such free passes are not only dangerous, but wholly unnecessary?
On October 1, 2006, Tennessee Titans’ defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth scraped 30-stitches worth of skin from the face of defenseless Cowboys’ player Andre Gurode. That act could have been emulated just four weeks later by NCAA players from Miami and Florida International who sparked an on-field melee that resulted in 31 player suspensions.
Athletes do assume the risk of injury, but they do not consent to blind side brutality or aggravated battery. Thanks to video technology, sorting out the on-field truth is usually not a problem, so the law needs to keep step.
In 2003 a powder puff football game devolved into a grotesquely violent hazing ritual that sent five teenage girls to the hospital and resulted in numerous suspensions and other remedial action—but few would have noticed and little would have been done except for one thing: a see-all video tape that found its way into the national press and played on CNN for two solid weeks from Peoria to Parma.
No need to ignore cruel or malicious acts—if a picture is worth a thousand words, a red-handed video is worth a thousand witnesses. All pro sports are well documented, but so are college games and even high school contests. Indeed, almost every play in most little league games is caught on tape by someone—usually an obsessive parent.
Here is the first big step to a rational solution: the state legislatures—or maybe even Congress—should criminalize all on-field violence that clearly goes beyond the normal rules and other expectations of the game in question. Not all injuries are actionable, of course—that would be absurd in any sport—just aberrant behavior that amounts to “flagrant sports battery” roughly defined as:
Flagrant Sports Battery: An act of excessive battery or other force or violence of a magnitude that is unnecessary or contrary to the object of the game as stated in the express or commonly implied rules and reasonable expectations of the subject contest, which is invoked intentionally or recklessly and which causes substantial injury.
Thus, any routine injury that results from the usual clipping, face mask penalties or brush-back pitches would not normally be actionable, while cutting up a player’s face between plays, biting off an ear, or punching an opponent in the mouth would be.
The time has come for a “Neal Goss Sports Act” to officially define, prohibit and penalize flagrant sports violence. So, legislators—batter up?
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