Have a yen for mayhem? There are places you can satisfy it without fear that the law will intervene.
I’m talking about our fields of play, all of them. What happens in Vegas may or may not stay in Vegas, but what happens in sports—no matter how appalling-- stays in sports. You can get away with just about anything short of murder without the cops taking much notice.
Recent examples abound. Last month in a Stanley Cup playoff game the Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres blindsided the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa with a leaping blow to the head that left Hossa concussed and ended his season. Torres was ejected and suspended but not otherwise charged.
A few days later the curiously self-named Metta World Peace of the L.A. Lakers, a thug formerly known as Ron Artest, celebrated a dunk by viciously elbowing the Oklahoma Thunder’s James Harden in the ear, leaving Harden writhing on the court. Peace, too, has escaped any punishment except the one imposed by his sport.
You may recall that the pre-Peace Artest also was a central figure in basketball’s biggest recent-year explosion of lawlessness, the 2004 “Malice in the Palace” brawl that spilled over into the stands of the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers NBA game in Detroit. Yet he happily dribbles on, wreaking havoc and paying his fines from his ample purse (his contract will pay him about $7 million this season).
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, the “bounty” scandal involving the football New Orleans Saints. This one spans several years and involves coaches and team executives as well as players. If evidence of criminal intent sometimes has been lacking in other instances of playing-field violence, it certainly is present here, with coaches caught on tape exhorting their charges to go beyond the rules of the game to injure key opponents in return for direct cash rewards.
Properly, the National Football League has cracked down hard on some of the perpetrators, issuing an open-ended suspension on Saints’ ex-defensive coordinator Greg Williams and sitting head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for a season. But while the organized nature of the scheme raises the possibility of conspiracy charges as well as those against individuals, the criminal authorities have been silent on the matter to date.
The reasons that you can get away on the field with acts that would bring prison time if committed on the street or in a bar are several. One is our tradition, however goofy, that holds that sports are a realm apart and gives their overseers wide latitude in dealing with infractions of all sorts. Another is the political nature of criminal prosecutions in this land; athletes generally are popular and elected law-enforcement officials are loath to pursue them. It’s noteworthy in this regard that in the rare instances where prosecutions have followed on-field criminal acts it’s usually been visiting-team players who were targeted. Five Pacers were hauled into court after the ’04 Palace fight, and while their sentences were laughably light (probation and a few hours of community service) that was more than the Piston combatants got, which was nothing.
Mostly, though, boys are allowed to be boys in sports because of the long-established legal doctrine of assumed consent, which states that people who engage in risky activities knowingly accept the dangers inherent therein. These include the physical pummeling participants inevitably get in the normal course of sports like boxing, football, hockey and basketball.
Thanks to recent revelations about the long-term consequences of concussions, it now turns out that those risks are greater than once was supposed. In any case, though, they generally haven’t been interpreted to cover injuries that result from blatant rules violations. For example, when Evander Holyfield entered a Las Vegas boxing ring against Mike Tyson in November of 1998 he might have expected to get smacked around some, but he probably didn’t anticipate having a chunk of an ear bitten off. Tyson could have been prosecuted criminally for doing that but, typically, he wasn’t. His sole penalties were a one-year suspension from his sport and a $3 million fine, payable to the Nevada Athletics Commission. That amount looks large until it’s noted that his purse from the fray was $30 million.
Indeed, what screams out at anyone who looks into such matters are the consistent discrepancies between the treatment of the perps and their victims. Nothing makes this point better than the February, 2004, episode in which Todd Bertuzzi, of the hockey Vancouver Canucks, punched the Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore from behind during a game and drove him head-first into the ice, breaking three of Moore’s neck vertebrae and giving him a severe concussion. Don’t view the tape of this unless you have a strong stomach.
Bertuzzi was criminally charged in Canada and got off with the usual slap on the wrist—probation and public service. He was fined and suspended for 17 months by the National Hockey League but missed only 20 games because of the players’ strike during that period. Reinstated in 2005, he was named to the Canadian Olympic team the next year, putting his country’s stamp of approval on his character. He’s still in the NHL.
Moore never played hockey again, and still suffers from his injuries. He sued Bertuzzi for damages in 2005. Seven years later, his suit has yet to come to trial.
NOTE: To see my prescription for saving the Chicago Cubs, check out my latest piece on chicagosidesports.com.