How the Law De-Criminalizes Violence in Sport

The fascination with sports is its appeal to our primal instincts.

Most sports fans  experience an adrenalin surge when they watch their heroes, in many cases their alter egos, lay a solid hit on an opponent or land a solid punch.

Professional hockey and professional football leagues are taking steps to address the issue of violence in sport, especially as it relates to blows to the head (read concussions).   Professional sports governing bodies have a vested interest in protecting their franchise players.  The marquis player is what draws paying customers in to stadiums and arenas, but so also does violence.  The key is to develop a balance between violence and the protection of  players in order to be able to appeal to a broad audience.

The whole issue of concussions is not something new to sport.  The governing bodies have been aware of the concussion issue for some time.  In the past, however, especially in hockey, there was an internal on-ice system to protect franchise players.  During Wayne Gretzky’s heyday in Edmonton (1978-1988) it was rare for anyone to take a cheap shot at Number 99 because they knew if they did they would have to deal with (and likely be embarrassed or annihilated by) Number 27,  Dave Semenko.  Many in hockey credit at least a portion of  Gretzky’s success to Semenko.  Some point to the time when Gretzky gave the car he won for being the MVP (Hart Trophy winner) in 1983 to Semenko as recognition that Gretsky understood and appreciated Semenko’s role in his  success.  Semenko’s presence gave Gretsky more room on the ice.   Hockey had its own  so-called on-ice ‘policemen’ who kept order on the ice.  The modern game as it is played today has evolved and there are few if any true ‘policemen’ in  the Semenko mould in today’s NHL.  The consequence of the decline of the on ice policeman is that anyone can and will take a shot at anyone – even the super stars of the game.

When concussions affected  fringe players – the muckers, grinders and fighters – it was generally  viewed as acceptable collateral damage.  Once it started affecting franchise players like hockey’s Sidney Crosby, the sport’s governing bodies sat up and took note.  When stars are laid low the bottom line is in jeopardy, which makes it an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Both the National Hockey League and the National Football League have responded by changing the rules, especially as they relate  to hits to the head,  protection for players in vulnerable or defenceless positions and of course  protection of marquis players.  In football it would be the quarterback and the star receivers; in hockey it is the high scorers and the goalies.

How does all of this relate to policing and public policy?  Violence in sport goes to the core of the cultural value system in our society.  As a society we generally deplore violence on the street but at the same time want to see it on the field of play.  Our sports heroes have become modern-day gladiators.  The law provides the  context and differentiates between activities  (assaults) that take place on the street and those that take place in the arena or on the field of play or in the boxing ring.  In one context the activities are criminal, in another they are not.  It is through the enactment of laws and the public policy that flows from those laws that we attempt to balance and offset two  opposing and contradictory sets of values.

In Canada, were it not for the wording of Section 265 of the Criminal Code, much of the activity we see on the field of play would be criminal.  Assault is defined as “intentionally applying force to another person either  directly or indirectly”.  Can you imagine a football game or a hockey game where no one  applied force to another person?   Who would watch it?  The saving phrase in the legislation that keeps athletes out of the courts is “without the consent of another person”.   Athletes,  because they are deemed to be aware of what is likely to happen on the field of play are deemed to consent to having force applied against them.  Criminal charges are normally only considered in situations where the amount or type of force used goes beyond what would normally be expected in a particular sport.  The case of Todd Bertuzzi, who sucker punched Steve Moore during a  hockey game (March 8 2004) between Vancouver and Colorado comes to mind.  The NHL suspended Bertuzzi for 17 months and he subsequently entered a plea of  guilty to criminal assault charges.

If  boxing regulators, on the other hand, wanted to prevent blows to the head, they might be out of business.  Blows to the body and the head are the essence of boxing.   The after effects of  repeated head shots  (the mainstay of boxing) are most notably demonstrated by Muhammad Ali.  Despite the evidence,  young men (and to a lesser degree young women)  are still going in the ring and sustaining concussions on a daily basis with no end in sight – and it’s perfectly legal.

The Criminal Code also specifically addresses boxing.  Again, without special provisions that blows to the head and body administered in boxing rings would be assaults.  Apart from Section 265, Section 83 of the Criminal Code specifically addresses prize fighting:

“Prize fight” is defined as: “an encounter or fight with fists or hands between two persons who have met for that purpose by previous arrangement made by or for them”.  However, like the assault section,  Section 83 has a saving provision.  Boxing contests between sportsmen, either amateur or professional, under the authority of a duly authorized amateur body or a commission as in the case of professional boxing,  are not deemed to be prize fights so they are legal.  Again, the law makes an exception so as to legalize boxing.

I suppose it all comes down to the old adage ‘just because its legal does not mean its right’.

When it comes to hockey and football we need to get this right.  These games can be played in a highly entertaining manner with less gratuitous violence that still allows the offensive stars to showcase their talents.  In terms of hockey we see it on display at the Olympics and the World Junior Hockey Championships.    It would be a shame if sports fans were deprived of being able to watch the likes of Sidney Crosby put their immense skills on display because of a cheap shot by a goon or less talented player.

One comment on “How the Law De-Criminalizes Violence in Sport

  1. Harry Kuootir says:

    Outstanding post Menno. Thank you!

    By the way, I would like to post a comment on your most recent bog entry. Have you disabled the commenting feature? That would be a pity.


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