When does violence during sporting events become criminal?
When does a player causing physical harm to an opponent go from a part of the game, to a cheap shot, to a crime? That question has been raised once again after Game 3 of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final, when two players were lost for the remainder of the playoffs, one due to a concussion and the other due to a suspension.
Aaron Rome of the Vancouver Canucks blindsided Boston Bruin Nathan Horton, who a couple seconds earlier had just passed the puck. With both players still skating at a rapid pace, Rome lowered his left shoulder right under Horton’s head, sending him flying backwards and causing his head to bounce off the ice. For those who missed it, the video is embedded at the end of this post.
Horton was hospitalized with a concussion, and Rome was suspended for four games by the NHL. The league rightfully disciplined Rome, but should he also face criminal charges for his action during the sporting contest?
That wouldn’t be unprecedented. Since 1969, at least 11 instances in professional hockey have resulted in players facing criminal charges for actions during games. The most notable recent incident occurred in 2004, when Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks punched Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in the back of the head and then fell on top of him. Moore suffered a broken neck and a concussion, ending his career. Bertuzzi was charged and later pled guilty to assault causing bodily harm.
In March of this year, an 18-year-old Canadian was arrested and charged with assault after he allegedly intentionally tripped a referee during a hockey game.
Other sports aren’t immune to this type of behavior resulting in criminal charges. Just search the terms “game, player, assault, charges” on Google and 28.1 million results are produced.
Five players were charged after a brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons in 2004, with several Pacer players (most notably Ron Artest) going into the stands to fight Detroit fans. All five players were found guilty and were sentenced to a year of probation and community service.
Sociologist Michael Smith groups violence during sporting events into one of four categories:
• Brutal body contact is physical contact that is deemed within the parameters of the game and the sport’s rules. An example would be a hard check in hockey or a tackle in football.
• Borderline violence is a physical act that violates the game’s rules and causes bodily injury but is still generally accepted by participants and spectators. An example may be elbowing an opponent while jostling for rebounding position in a basketball game.
• Quasi-criminal violence is an act that violates the sport’s rules and possibly criminal laws. An example would be punching someone in the head during a soccer game.
• Criminal violence is an extreme act that causes severe physical harm or even death and almost always results in criminal charges. An example would be a fight during a baseball game that results in a player going into a coma.
So which category should Rome’s hit in the Stanley Cup Final be classified as? It would fall into one of the two middle categories, but whether or not he should be charged with a crime is up for debate.