Contact Sports: Criminal Assault?

89dbec91efb49516c59716551a59474d2b93404a4c10bdef1356841227d02f9bFrom Gladiators of the Pantheon, to “The Gladiators,” a Cleveland Arena Football team, people have always gawked and cheered at the brutal carnage of contact sports. It’s no surprise that rules have been toned down over the years, as civilization moved beyond the aqueducts and chariots of the olde world, but there has inevitably remained a level of physicality.

So where is that line between carnage and sport? For the Contra Costa County prosecutor’s office, it begins and ends with charges for in-game felony assault and battery.

A 15-year-old water polo player from Lafayette, CA is currently facing a criminal sentence for breaking an opponent’s nose during a tournament. Though no foul was called, allegedly captured on video is the “purposeful blow” to the Bellarmine player’s face – – in front of the goal, while playing in the known-aggressive 2-meter position of the known-physical contact sport of water polo.

Ever see a match of water polo? No? Well, imagine rugby, mixed with a dash of soccer, and all while treading water.

California Penal Code, Section 242, defines “battery” as the “willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.” Certainly, the element of force is satisfied (just ask the broken nose). But, “unlawful”?

Signing up to play contact sports involves a necessary assumption of risk. Some of these risks are inherently obvious (like being tackled); some risks, on the other hand, are certainly not consented to by a player’s participation (like being intentionally kicked in the face). But society requires a balancing effort to both encourage sport and vigorous competition, and to discourage ‘foul’ play.

Cases like this have already been adjudicated across the country. Many states have adopted holdings that a player’s conduct must be more than a game’s rule violation, and more than ordinary negligence (that is, a lack of reasonable care under the circumstances). The defendant-player must be shown to have acted with intent to injure or with reckless disregard for the safety of the injured player. Conduct is “reckless” if the risk is known but consciously disregarded. In other words, the courts have set a particularly high bar when an athlete attempts to sue another player.

Still, it will be interesting to see what kind of precedent this case sets for high school sports.