I must confess to a little measure of confusion lately as to the lines that are drawn separating sports and competition from the law. In basketball, a player clearly elbows another in the face with malicious intent—he doesn’t get arrested, he gets suspended for 7 games. Or a baseball player, in a blind rage, throws his helmet at an umpire—he doesn’t get arrested, he gets suspended for 4 games. Or a football player who pays other players to hurt opposing players—he doesn’t get arrested, he gets suspended for a season. Don’t get me started on hockey—the whole hockey fight thing is a completely different beast.
But why is it that when an act of violence takes place on the field, there is no legal prosecution? Take the baseball player from earlier this week, Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays. He didn’t like the calls of the home plate umpire, so he took of his helmet, charged the umpire and wound up to throw the helmet at him, only to slam it into the ground at the last minute, with the result that the helmet bounced right up and hit the umpire in the hip. If you watch the video, it is clear that in his rage he looked as if he would throw the helmet through the umpire, not straight into the ground. What if you did that in your profession?
I think we can all agree that on the baseball field, the umpire is the judge and makes the rulings. When I am in court, I sometimes don’t like the judge’s rulings—if I were to charge the bench, I guarantee you I would not only be pounced on by the bailiff, but I would also see some time in the greybar motel. Yet my anger was manifested while within the confines of my profession, doesn’t that exempt me from prosecution like it does the professional athlete on the field?
In 1965, in a baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers, Juan Marichal, batting for the Giants, got so upset at the Dodgers that he actually hit Dodger catcher John Roseboro in the head with his bat. Marichal missed 8 games and was fined $1,750.00. What do you think the punishment would have been if the incident had happened on the street instead of on the baseball field? Assault with a deadly weapon? Sounds like it could be a felony—more than 8 days in jail, right?
Leaving baseball, what about football and the bounty scandal that has been the big story of late? If you aren’t up to date, apparently some football players were being paid cash “bonuses” if they not only made tackles, but hurt the other player so badly that he had to be taken out of the game. Paying someone to hurt another person—sounds like what a hit man does. As punishment, the coach who initiated the bounty program was suspended for a year as was one of the players. But why not criminal prosecution? It’s all fun and games, but what if someone truly got hurt? What if a player’s career was prematurely ended because of a particularly vicious hit that was placed simply because payment was coming?
We can attempt to justify the players’ actions by saying that they play a physically demanding and intense game, where aggression and exertion are expected and required. We can contend that adrenaline and exhilaration is simply a recipe for explosion when triggered by anger. But I get pretty intense in my work. I deal in a high-stress world, why am I not given a free pass to detonate at a judge or an opposing attorney?
The problem is that this is teaching the fans, and especially the young fans, a poor lesson; that it is ok to fly off the handle and even physically harm another person so long as it is within the lines of the field. Sure, there will be punishment, but a few days off from work is nothing terribly significant. In fact, I am sure some of would appreciate a few days off from work as a punishment.
And what of the people who the players work with and play for, what do they say? Would you believe they encourage the behavior? In responding to questions about the helmet-throwing incident, the Blue Jays general manager said that he would “never begrudge a player for being upset and being a competitor.” No one is saying that the players are not allowed to get emotional and upset when things go bad, but is turning to violence ever appropriate? Because of the high level of athletic ability, players are even more capable of seriously injuring another person. The pitcher who can throw 96 miles per hour can end a batter’s career by a well-placed pitch to the face. But if that happens, the pitcher barely gets a slap on the wrist and then can go back to making his millions.
I apologize, but none of this makes any sense to me. However consider this—the exemption from prosecution does not seem to be the case in all sports. Remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco? Harding was prosecuted and eventually pled guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. One would wonder, though, what would have happened if the attack had taken place on the ice during competition and not on the sidelines…