Just your average hockey "scuffle"

With the exception of the National Hockey League, the majority of sporting events have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to fighting.  After the recent scuffles and cheap shots (video of the 2nd fight) between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders, NHL legend-turned-owner Mario Lemieux questioned whether the NHL’s fighting policy is appropriate.  As I read his statement and reflected on the fights in sports, I became curious as to the legal repercussions the players might face.

I think most people would agree that sports is the lone profession where fighting is tolerated (in the legal sense) and in some cases encouraged.   If two attorneys were to throw down their legal pads and put each other in a headlock as they spun around the courtroom trying to punch one another, I would be very surprised if they did not lose their license to practice (please leave comments if you have witnessed this).  It follows as no surprise that an incident like this is likely to give rise to a lawsuit for assault and battery, and may even allow a prosecutor to bring criminal charges of assault. Yet you rarely hear of such actions when professional athletes are involved.  So, back to my question, what about the fights that make the top story of Sports Center. Is there a double standard for sports?

Because of the plethora of fights in the NHL, I’m only going to reference fights in that league that have led to either civil or criminal charges; but please feel free to comment regarding any charges resulting from fights between players in other sports.  Furthermore, while players have been charged with crimes ranging from simple assault to manslaughter, I will limit my examples to a few of the more recent incidents.  In February 2000, Boston Bruin Marty McSorley attacked Vancouver Canuck Donald Brashear from behind when he hit Brashear over the head with his stick.  McSorley was charged and found guilty of assault with a weapon by a Canadian court (note Canada’s definition assault is very similar to the United States’).  During the trial, the defense argued that violence was part of the game and McSorely testified that he intended to hit Brashear in the shoulder to start a fight, but missed.  In announcing his findings, Judge William Kitchen rebuked McSorley sharply stating that he “slashed for the head.  A child, swinging as at a tee-ball, would not miss.  A housekeeper swinging a carpet-beater would not miss.  An NHL player would never, ever miss.”

Just four years later, Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi skated up behind Colorado Avalanche rookie Steve Moore and sucker-punched him in the head.  Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a concussion, and facial lacerations.  In response, Bertuzzi was suspended without pay for 17 months (costing him over $500,000). He pled guilty to assault and was sentenced to one year of probation and 80 hours of community service.  However, Moore was not satisfied.  He filed a lawsuit seeking $18 million in civil damages and lost wages against Bertuzzi, Canucks  head coach Marc Crawford, former Canucks forward Brad May and GM Brian Burke, and the owners of the Canucks. The first suit, filed in Colorado, was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction and the second, filed in Ontario, is still pending but has some very interesting drama.

Lemieux is not the only person who has spoken up regarding the fights that are regular events at NHL games and a selling point for many fans.  Shortly after the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, the American College of Sports Medicine, through William Roberts, M.D., issued a statement calling for the NHL to adopt a “Zero Tolerance policy and suspend players who fight.”  He noted that between 1998 and 2004 law enforcement officials deemed that three separate incidents during NHL games were violent enough to warrant criminal charges.

Not everyone is convinced that the legal system should be involved.  In response to McSorley’s verdict, Bruins defenseman Kyle McLaren said “It happens in games. It happens all the time. There’s other stuff that’s probably worse than that . . . . Now it’s going off-ice. It’s sort of crossing some bounds here.”

In my opinion, it is this type of mindset that needs correcting.  Simply because “it happens all the time” or “it could be worse” does not mean society and justice should permit a person’s health and life to be put in jeopardy.  To avoid any misconceptions, I want to be clear that I am not advocating that natural violent aspects of sports such as football, hockey or basketball should be changed. I understand that athletes can be seriously injured, even when they plan within the rules.  It’s a risk you take when you play the game. I am, however, advocating that when rules are blatantly discarded and one player intentionally goes after another to with an intent to injure (e.g. fighting, especially punching a defenseless player in the head), it is appropriate to involve the law. Other professions do not have the luxury of fighting and avoiding the legal consequences.

In sum, I love sports. I love watching the emotion and passion of the players. I even love the big hits.  But I would hope that our society has reached a point where we do not turn away from holding athletes more accountable for their actions.  Even if it means involving the law.