How can I still be a sports fan after Greg Hardy?

The sports blog Deadspin published an investigative story recently by Diana Moscovitz detailing the assault case against National Football League (NFL) player Greg Hardy. It’s a thoroughly dispiriting piece which describes and confirms many of our worst assumptions about human nature and the casual ease with which rich and powerful men in our society take advantage of their privileged positions. In case you haven’t read the piece, here’s roughly what we know:

  • Greg Hardy physically assaulted a woman, Nicole Holder, who he had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with for two years
  • Police were called onto the scene by two separate 911 calls, one from a witness, who was concerned about Holder’s well-being, and one from Hardy who claimed that Holder was assaulting him.
  • When the police arrived, they interviewed the people who were there, including Holder, Hardy, the witness who called 911, and other witnesses. They took photos of Holder’s injuries and also those of Hardy’s. These photos are available on Deadpin as part of their article.
  • The police eventually arrested Hardy and in 2014 he was convicted of assault.
  • Hardy later appealed the verdict and, largely because Holder refused to take part in the appeal process, eventually had his conviction overturned. The prosecutors suggested that Hardy had reached an undisclosed civil settlement with Holder in return for her silence in court.
  • Since then, Hardy has been reinstated to the NFL and signed as a free agent by the Dallas Cowboys. He served a four game suspension after his original 10 game sentence was reduced. He’s back on the field and playing well.

As a sports fan and as someone who spends a lot of time writing about sports for an audience of mostly non-sports fans, in addition to being totally disgusted by reading Deadspin’s article today, I found myself automatically thinking about what a non-sports fan might think about the article. The single biggest question that I imagined non-sports fans asking was, “how can you continue to watch football after reading a story like that?” My answer, and I assure you, I am not being glib at all about this, is that I am proud of sports today.

It’s good that sports are covered so vociferously by the sports media that stories like this are published. Players, coaches, and owners should be well aware of the fact by now that they can’t do something as awful as this and get away with it for long without it becoming known. Not every industry can say this. Take the restaurant industry, for example, which is just beginning to struggle with this issue in the workplace. What part of American life is more closely scrutinized than sports? Maybe politics or the music/movie/celebrity industry can rival sports, but most cannot. The close coverage of sports benefits society as a whole by surfacing a lot of issues which I believe are present in every walk of life.

  • Money and celebrity equate to great social power which can warp the way society treats a person, even to the extent of changing how police and the court system handle an illegal act.
  • Many domestic assault victims are vulnerable to private and public pressure that work against the punishment of their assaulter.
  • Many people are quick to disbelieve or blame a domestic assault victim and equally quick to excuse or forgive the assaulter. This is especially true in cases where the legal system has failed in convicting the assaulter, or even, as in this case, convicted him but lost on appeal.
  • The extent to which someone is forgiven or excused from having committed assault is affected by their real or perceived value to some element of society.

We need to find ways to break these patterns. How can we strengthen our ethical mores so that we don’t compromise our ethics, even for people who we venerate? How can we particularly empower our legal system to be invulnerable to the appeal of the rich and powerful? How can we ease or reverse the response to domestic assault victims so that we support their recovery and the punishment of their assaulters? How can we convince or force companies to hold employees to a higher standard than that of a flawed legal system without creating modern Red Scares or witch hunts? How can we apply forgiveness without denial and rehabilitate without letting people get away with crimes? How can we do this evenly across society?

We as a society need to answer all these questions together and, while I doubt that sports as a subculture is currently equipped to lead that movement, I am grateful to sports journalists who are at least bringing these problems to the surface persistently and eloquently.

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

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?


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

When is assault, assault in ice hockey?

There’s an old joke, usually attributed to Rodney Dangerfield, about hockey that goes, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.” At the risk of trying to explain humor, this joke works because it flips what would be a more reasonable comment, “I went to a hockey game the other night, and a fight broke out.” In reversing the statement, the joke identifies a hidden truth about how many people watch hockey — the violence is the primary attraction and the sport, secondary. The juxtaposition of two news stories today from Yahoo!’s hockey blog, Puck Daddy, made me think about the joke in another way.

The first of the back to back stories was a story by Greg Wyshynski about an NHL player whose choice to play with a tinted visor on his helmet following a concussion casts doubts on whether he truly recovered. Wyshynski suggests that the player, Matt Calvert, played through concussion symptoms earlier in the year before being held out for fifteen games. Now that he has apparently recovered, he’s returning with a tinted visor because he is still sensitive to light. Now, it’s not impossible that his light sensitivity is unrelated to the concussion or that it’s not a sign that he hasn’t truly recovered enough to be playing, but it sure is suspicious. The second story, published eight minutes later by Sean Leahy, comes from Sweden, where a 31 year old hockey player named Andre Deveaux has had an arrest warrant for an assault charge issued following something which happened before a Swedish club hockey game. Deveaux felt he had been dangerously attacked by an opposing player in a previous game and decided to take his revenge during pre-game warm-ups. In video you can see Deveaux skating up behind an opponent, swinging his stick at the player’s feet, and then wrestling him to the ground. When asked about it afterwards, Deveaux protested that his actions were not as bad as his opponents, because he felt the hit he took was more dangerous (and indeed, he claims to have had concussions symptoms since that hit, although he still played) than the attack he perpetrated.

The connection between these two stories may not be obvious but I do think it’s significant. Both stories are about grappling with violence in the context of hockey. Hockey has a complex set of written and unwritten rules that determine which forms of violence are acceptable. The outside world does as well, both in the form of laws and cultural norms. When we criticize a sport for allowing a concussed player to return too soon after a concussion, we’re basing that view on our ever-changing set of cultural norms. When we issue an arrest warrant for a player for assaulting another player, we’re basing that on both laws and cultural norms.

In the first article, we never find out much about the hit that caused Matt Calvert’s concussion, but we don’t really need to. Like in American Football, the collisions that are integral to hockey are more than enough to plausibly and perhaps inevitably cause brain injuries among a good percentage of its players. That Calvert got a concussion playing hockey is understood — what’s at question is how he and his team and the league should be handling his diagnosis, recovery, and return to play. In the second article, the details of the incident are important. It’s rare but not unprecedented for a warrant to be issued from an incident on a hockey rink. Of course, hockey players assume a certain amount of violence when they step on the rink. Lots of what happens on a hockey rink would be fairly considered assault of the rink. What differentiates Deveaux’s assault from a normal body-check is primarily the rules, written and unwritten, of hockey itself.

“I went to a hockey game the other night and a conversation about cultural acceptance of violence broke out.” Is, perhaps, less of a good joke, but in this case, it’s probably more true to life.