Professional sports operates at a higher level than college sports, but these athletes are more likely to face legal action. Dale Hackbart of the Denver Broncos attempted to block Charles Clark of the Cincinnati Bengals during an interception by throwing himself on the ground in front of Hackbart. Hackbart, out of frustration, hit Clark with his right forearm on the back of the neck. The force of the blow was so powerful both men fell to the ground. Three of Clark's vertebrae were broken in the assault.
The United States District Court for the District of Colorado interpreted the incident as an "involuntary reflex," stating,"The violence of professional football is carefully orchestrated. Both offensive and defensive players must be extremely aggressive in their actions, and they must play with reckless abandonment of self-protective instincts." They also pointed out that the only disciplinary actions available in the game were penalties and game expulsion, and that players carry an assumption of risk when they play. In addition, fouls were often missed during the game, since it was played in a noisy, emotionally fueled environment and referees could not see everything each player did. Lastly, it would be pointless to try to apply injury tort law to this case, since charging each player with a duty of care would be impossible. In the end, they concluded that the Bengals were not responsible.
The plaintiff, of course, appealed the decision. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had a different point-of-view, stating that there were specific rules in football that prohibited such behavior during play. These rules were put into place to avoid having players intentionally hurt each other. Because of this, football players should be held responsible for injuring an opponent if they are acting with a reckless disregard for safety. They overturned the original decision and the plaintiff was awarded damages.
So what can these incidents teach us about sport law? As with any other area of law, the decisions made by judge and jury can often vary depending on the region, the level of play, and the type of injury sustained. Players who have a history of inappropriate or violent behavior may find themselves in more of a bind than those who are first time offenders. In order to stay on the right side of the law, players must not let their emotions get the better of them; their focus needs to be on the game itself, as opposed to playing to win.
Granted, many fouls and other issues are never identified, let alone disciplined. And many coaches and schools can be so focused on winning that they can easily overlook an elbow in the ribs or a strategically placed foot. However, if a violation takes place and is discovered, players could end up with more than a simple fine or expulsion from a game or two-- they could end up in court.
Even if a lawsuit is brought against a player, team or company, there is no guarantee of winning the case. As pointed out earlier, not all courts will award damages to a plaintiff based on their injuries. Courts must carefully evaluate the incident, the rules of the game, the culture of the sport, and the laws of the land in order to make a fair and unbiased judgment. This can be an extremely difficult task, as can be seen by the number of situations where verdicts have been overturned by higher courts. Sports law makes this easier to do, since its focus is specifically in the area of sports. This avoids confusion between regular civil injury cases and sports injury cases, since there is the assumption of risk when one plays.
Sports law is continually being shaped and changed by the type of incidents and court cases. It is, however, malleable; not only is it attempting to work within the rules of the games within its jurisdiction, it must avoid being at odds with state (and sometimes federal) laws as well. Its goal is to force players to abide by the rules, and to be sure that they are disciplined when they do not.
Fair discipline does not go above and beyond in order to make a point; it successfully sends a message to the player that his or her behavior will not be tolerated. Ideally, the player will then modify his or her behavior, which would send a message to other players who may be considering doing something similar. This method would definitely cut down on the need for retaliatory action on behalf of other players, which should never be part of the game. It would also cut back on the number of frivolous lawsuits, since the line between accident and deliberate action would be much clearer.
Sports law will always affect the rules of the game. It must; in order to stay within the law, rules will change to fit it. However, the purpose of sports law and game rules -- the bottom line -- will always be the safety of the players and the preservation of the game. To that end, sports law will always have a place in society.
"NFL Rules Digest: Summary of Penalties." NFL.com - Official Site of the National Football League. Web. 14 July 2011. .
Sport and Violence: A Critical Examination of Sport. p.4. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009. Print.
NHL.com -Rules, Official Rules-Rule 48: Illegal Check To The Head. (18 July 2011) http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=64063
Robert Crown Law Library, Stanford Law School, Avila Vs. Citrus Community College District. (18 July 2011) http://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/avila-v-citrus-community-college-dist-33615
SCOCAL, Avila v. Citrus Community College Dist., 38 Cal. 4th 148 available at: (http://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/avila-v-citrus-community-college-dist-33615) (last visited Tuesday July 19, 2011).
Kavanagh vs. Trustees of Boston University & another. Argued April 8, 2003. -- September 19, 2003. Available at: http:masscases.com/cases/sjc/440/440mass195.html. (last visited Tuesday July 19, 2011).
ROSS BERNSTEIN AND MARTY MCSORLEY. THECODE:THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF FIGHTING AND RETALIATION IN THE NHL, 4
Ibid, p. 206
Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 435 F. Supp. 352, 355 (D. Co. 1977), rev'd 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979), cert. denied 444 U.S. 931 (1979) (last visited Tuesday July 19, 2011).