Why aren't football players arrested when they break the rules?

Pittsburgh Steelers

Dear Sports Fan;

Football is a rough sport, I get it, players get hurt in normal competition. But why isn’t someone like Pacman Jone criminally charged after wrestling an opponents helmet off and then slamming his head into it?

Is a fine or even a suspension (which it appears he will not be subject to) enough?

Thanks,
Al


Dear Al,

You pose a good question, and one that I’ve addressed before on this site, but it’s worth thinking about again. Why is a violent act, which would be worthy of a criminal charge in other contexts, not illegal in the context of a sport? Why aren’t football players arrested when they break the rules?

First, let’s take a look at the incident:

Jones is the player on the Cincinnati Bengals, wearing white and orange, who tears the helmet off of Oakland Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooker and then jams Coopers head back into his own helmet. Cooper’s teammates quickly come to his defense and a bit of pushing and shoving follows as the referees throw their yellow penalty flags to show that a foul has been committed.

Jones’ act is clearly against the rules of football. It would just as clearly be defined as assault if it happened outside of the context of football.

 

The rules of any sport describe a set of expected behaviors that fall on both sides of the line between allowed and not allowed. Fist fighting is illegal in ice hockey and golf, but you can get a good sense about which sport expects their players to fight by looking at the two rule books. Ice hockey has a clear rule about fighting – players who fight are given matching five-minute penalties. Golf doesn’t have a rule at all. A hockey player who fights is very unlikely to be prosecuted. A golfer… may just be in cuffs by the end of the day. Why the difference? A reasonable hockey player assumes the risk of being confronted with violence, legal and illegal, when he or she steps onto the ice. A golfer doesn’t. Even though fighting isn’t as prevalent in football as it is in hockey, it is a violent sport and its players reasonably assume the risk of being confronted with violence when they play. Athletes in contact sports have implicitly consented to violence.

Even if a player or an authority did try to prosecute a player like Jones, who goes to far, it would be a hard case to argue. Consider how difficult it would be from an outsider’s perspective to compare legal and illegal forms of violence. Here’s another incident which happened during this year’s preseason, in a game between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers:

In this film, former rugby star Jarryd Hayne finishes a run by lowering his shoulder into a defender’s chest and knocking him to the ground. Let’s apply the same two tests to it: it would clearly be considered assault if it happened on the street but in the context of football, it’s not only legal, it’s deeply admired. I’m not a legal scholar, or a practicing lawyer, or even the fiancée of Vinny Gambini, but I feel like it would be very difficult to convict someone of assault for one incident on a football field if opposing counsel could show equally violent or even more violent acts that are explicitly allowed in the context of football. And I don’t think the legal system cares very much about whether an act is strictly allowed or not allowed by a sports league.

Aside from being flagrantly against the rules of football, what quality would one use to argue that Jones’ act is more worthy of prosecution than others? It’s not more damaging – earlier in the day, a New York Jets player was taken off on a stretcher and hospitalized during a legal play. Other injuries from just yesterday’s action included a torn Achilles tendon, a broken bone in a foot, several strained or torn knee ligaments, and several other concussions. Cooper, on the other hand, seems to be fine. How about force? Jones certainly didn’t use as much force on Cooper in that video than he would in a normal tackle.

This doesn’t mean that within the context of a sport, anything could and should be allowed to happen. For example, a player who snuck a knife onto the field and attacked an opponent would surely be prosecuted. No one assumes the risk of being stabbed during a sporting event. (Except fencing accidents, I suppose.) Our attitudes on this issue may also change – may even be in the process of changing already. Not so long ago, the law held that a married woman assumed the risk of being raped by her husband by entering into a marriage contract. That’s no longer the case and the world is a better place for it. With what we now know about the damaging effects of brain injuries on athletes, it’s possible that we are moving towards a world where flagrant and intentional violence toward a player’s head will be subject to legal charges.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

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