The Last Resort for Losers

Nowhere in the rule book of any sport is criminal violence authorized. Even in those sports events where physical force is part of the competition, causing injury to an opponent may be incidental to the goal of the competition but it is not the goal itself. Even in boxing, a sport about which there is debate over the whether it has crossed the line to violence for violence sake, there are rules which must be observed. For example, to continue fighting after a bout is over may result in criminal charges because sport is not an automatic exemption from civil or criminal assault prosecution. More and more competitors are coming under the jurisdiction of our courts because they have responded to losing a match, or even an argument, by engaging in impermissible violence.

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether a competitor who directs physical force against another player — in a basketball game for instance — has engaged in conduct requiring a penalty or is just using superior strength or speed within the rules to gain an advantage. Such questions are best dealt with by referees who are trained to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable contact. But sometimes those responsible for preserving the peace, even within a violent sport such as hockey, allow contact to go beyond what is covered in the rule book, resulting both in a loss of control over the game and in escalating tempers exploding into criminal violence.

More often than not, when the violence is among the athletes, those who participate in it are held accountable by those who preside over the sport. However, when sports violence reaches beyond the playing field and involves spectators, a more serious issue is raised, and the consequences for the offenders and quite possibly for officials who knew or should have known that violence was likely to occur can be severe and very expensive.

Determining Liability
In tort law, the concept of “foreseeable” risk can represent the key element in a determination of negligence liability when there is an obvious duty to protect an innocent party from harm. For example, when competing high school baseball teams begin “trash talking” with their opponents, it is usually the coach who is expected to keep players focused on sportsmanship and to discourage provocative conduct. But sometimes it is the coach, or even parents and other spectators, who become the provocateurs, and those officiating are duty-bound to maintain order off the field before somebody gets hurt. Today, that duty is even codified into law in states like Oregon, where officials at sporting events are empowered to remove anyone whose conduct is potentially dangerous to players and spectators alike. Failure to leave the venue when directed to do so by an official at such an event will subject the offender to arrest whether or not actual violence occurs.

While many officials at sporting events where such laws are in place don’t like being cast in the role of peace-keeper, it serves to underscore the seriousness of the violence problem, helps in reinforcing the authority of officials, and in the long run will likely prevent the inevitable law suits that arise after violence leaves injured players and spectators in its wake.

In today’s world, criminal violence is a foreseeable risk at organized sporting events, whether on an amateur or professional level. All too often, athletes are subtly encouraged to engage in violence by throwing at a batter, or intimidating opposing players verbally, if it is felt that some tactical advantage can be gained over the outcome of the game. When that conduct escalates and spectators get involved, somebody must and will be held accountable civilly or criminally for any injuries that result.

When it is a league, an official, a team, the venue, a player, or the school district that is held accountable for an injury to a spectator or player, it is usually on the theory that the violent act was foreseeable and those responsible for preventing it failed to take reasonable precautions to do so. When the law finds someone liable for the harm resulting from such an act, it does so in acknowledgement of a failed duty to make a reasonable effort to prevent the violence from occurring, while also attempting to make the victim whole by providing money damages. Another hoped-for remedial result is that similar failures to protect participants and fans from violence will not occur in the future, at least not among those who have paid the price for their bad conduct.

While sports violence is generally foreseeable, not every act can be reasonably anticipated. The law requires that reasonable efforts be made to prevent reasonably foreseeable risks, but it doesn’t impose blanket liability for every violent act. It is however incumbent upon our major league sports teams, as well as our amateur and school leagues, to develop programs to protect players and spectators from the kind of violence that seems to be growing at sporting events. Whether it involves an assault on a player or a coach (such as the assault a year ago on Tom Gamboa, who was coaching first base for the K.C. Royals in Chicago, by spectators who ran onto the field), or is caused by somebody like the heckled Texas Ranger player who broke the nose of a spectator by tossing a chair into the seats, organized sports has a duty to provide reasonable security for players and spectators alike against such acts.

The fact that some Public School Athletic League basketball games between New York City high school teams are played in empty gymnasiums is an example of how the nation’s largest school system has been forced to fulfill its duty to protect students from violence at athletic events. But whether it is through the employment of more security personnel, better anti- violence training for students and teachers, or the help of parents in enforcing codes of conduct, reasonable steps need to be taken to make our sporting events safe for all in attendance.

Winning athletic contests by employing impermissible violence turn victories into defeats and winners into losers. It has also driven millions of kids away from organized sports where the thrill of victory becomes the agony of defeat for young athletes who are tormented by actual and threatened violence from peers, coaches, fans and over-zealous parents who insist upon winning the game at any price. Anti-violence programs are needed to reverse this trend in sports because too few obstacles have been placed in the path of the foreseeable risks of violence.

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