When sports violence is a criminal act

Tony limon was a star on his high school basketball team. Raised without a father, he struggled to pull himself out of troubled early years in San Antonio. He worked two jobs, went to church each Sunday, and eagerly awaited the opportunity to excel at the small Missouri college he would be attending on a basketball scholarship.

But all that ended last week when he was sentenced to five years in prison. His infraction: elbowing and breaking an opponent's nose during a game his senior year.

Mr. Limon is a rarity in the world of sports. Only a handful of athletes have been criminally charged for acts they committed during a game.

But now, as violence in many sports is becoming more prevalent and public patience with it less so, police and prosecutors are edging toward taking action on the ice, gridiron, and parquet courts. The movement could be accelerated by the whack now seen around the world - Boston Bruin Marty McSorley's hit of an opponent in the head with his hockey stick.

But criminal prosecution raises a fundamental moral and legal question: Is - or should - sports violence be the province of police? "For whatever reason, sport has had a kind of sanctuary atmosphere to it in terms of the legal system and [police] have kept a distance," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "But the public has gotten fed up with athletes crossing violent lines, both on and off the court, and that may contribute to police entering the sanctuary."

The National Hockey League did take immediate action and suspend McSorley for the rest of the season - the longest suspension for an on-ice incident. But Vancouver police may take it further. They're considering charging McSorley with assault in the clubbing that knocked Canuck Donald Brashear unconscious - which could bring up to 14 years in prison. Two investigators are looking at the case and could submit their findings to the crown prosecutor early this week.

History of criminal charges

Canada has been more willing to bring charges against athletes for violence during games than authorities in the US. In fact, the first criminal case took place in Canada in 1969 and was the result of a fight between hockey players Ted Green of Boston and Wayne Maki of St. Louis in a preseason game north of the border. Both faced assault charges, but Green's were dropped, and Maki - who started the fight - was acquitted.

Since then, only a few cases against pro athletes have made it to court. Even fewer have yielded guilty verdicts. "As a general rule, courts treat conduct that occurs on the field differently than conduct off the field," says Matt Mitten, a sports-law expert at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "But that doesn't mean the bounds of criminal law end where the playing field begins."

The most famous incident in basketball was a sucker punch by the Los Angeles Lakers' Kermit Washington that almost killed Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977. Washington received a 60-day suspension and a $10,000 fine.

Mike Tyson had his boxing license revoked and was fined $3 million for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear in a 1997 title fight, but no criminal charges were filed. In baseball, Kansas authorities recently decided not to prosecute former Wichita State University pitcher Ben Christensen, who intentionally threw a ball at an opposing player while he was warming up. The player underwent eye surgery.

What all this shows, experts say, is that the trend is to keep such matters out of court and defer to the leagues themselves. Many agree with this hands-off approach.

It's the "appropriate way to deal with it - with the exception being if somebody took out a gun and shot somebody," says Mel Narol, a Princeton, N.J., sports lawyer who represents the National Association of Sports Officials. "I say that because I believe the leagues are doing a very good job at meting out appropriate penalties."

But others raise a pointed rejoinder: If the leagues are doing such a good job policing themselves, why does the violence persist? "Part of prosecutors' motivation [in bringing charges] might be that the leagues' internal discipline has not prevented similar acts from occurring, and that it's going to take the threat of criminal prosecution to prevent" it, says Mr. Mitten.

In addition, some argue that using fines to punish athletes who make millions isn't the solution. To them, charging McSorley with assault, instead of just a suspension and fine, would send a strong message. "The thought of jail time is very different than a $10,000 fine," Mr. Lapchick says.

One reason professional sports leagues oppose prosecution is because violence is one of the things that attracts fans, especially to hockey, some suggest. "They don't want players looking over their shoulders, saying 'If I do something on ice, I might end up in jail,' " Mitten says.

Burden of proof

To be sure, a certain amount of violence is inherent in games like football and hockey. So to make criminal charges stick, police and prosecutors need to prove the violence was intentional and beyond an accepted part of the game.

While professional athletes are seldom prosecuted, those at the recreational, college, and high-school levels are increasingly being hauled into court - because the threshold for what's accepted is lower.

In Lake County, Ill., a 15-year-old boy is awaiting trial on aggravated battery charges for slamming an opponent into the boards and leaving him paralyzed. He could face six years in prison if convicted. Michael Waller, state's attorney for Lake County, Ill., believes a lot of sports violence that could be considered criminal is overlooked. But if the act is egregious enough, "it's your responsibility as a prosecutor to bring criminal charges," he says.

In the San Antonio case, Limon's trial lawyer believes there is a certain amount of risk that comes with playing sports, and that coaches and parents sometimes encourage on-court violence. "In a basketball game, you're expecting contact. But the question is, how much contact are you consenting to?" says James Rodriguez.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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