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Back in 2012, the NFL charged the New Orleans Saints with running a bounty system from 2009 to 2011 with the stated goal of knocking out opposing players via injury thereby improving their odds of winning their games. Ultimately, Bountygate, resulted in the league handing down some of its most stringent punishments and fines upon some of the guilty parties.

Based on the investigation completed, it appears that there was substantial evidence to support charging blame towards members of the coaching staff, general management, as well as several defensive players (estimates are between 22-27 players) whom had contributed towards a fund to provide payouts for injuries dealt to opposing teams.

This article indicates that criminal charges in the US are unlikely given courts preference to defer to leagues to be self-regulating, however, the article notes that conduct far outside of what the player can expect might see prosecution. Does the opposing team running a bounty system rise to that level, especially given that the NFL Constitution specifically prohibits payment bonuses based on performance against an individual player or team?

The rules of football do promote a physical, high-contact sport that has a high probability of injury, however, the league has made rule changes to reduce the risk of injuries in a lot of scenarios.

Given that opposing players are presumably playing with those rule changes in mind and presumably not trying to deliberately tear another player's ACL and furthermore there being video and audio recordings of coaches promoting tactics to deliberately violate those rules (deliberate targeting of opponents' heads), could a prosecutor file criminal charges against these players and coaches with assault or conspiracy? Furthermore, what court would have jurisdiction if charges were filed?

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  • There are definitely U.S. cases of this although I can't cite them chapter and verse at the moment.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 5, 2022 at 16:15
  • You can't bring a gun to a hockey stick fight.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 6, 2022 at 21:40

3 Answers 3

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Generally, yes

Can players and coaches be held criminally liable for actions that they take beyond the scope of their game?

Yes. For example, Todd Bertuzzi was convicted with assault causing bodily harm for punching Steve Moore. Since that event happened in British Columbia, it was a British Columbia court that had jurisdiction.

In 2000, Marty McSorley was found guilty of assault for slashing another player in the head with his stick. This also happened in British Columbia: R. v. McSorley, 2000 BCPC 116. The judge quoted an older case, saying:

Patently, when one engages in a hockey game, one accepts that some assaults, which would otherwise be criminal, will occur and consents to such assaults. It is equally patent, however, that to engage in a game of hockey is not to enter a forum to which the criminal law does not extend. To hold otherwise would be to create the hockey arena a sanctuary for unbridled violence to which the law of Parliament and the Queen's justice could not apply.

The judge recognized that there is an "unwritten code of conduct agreed to by the players and officials" including norms of fighting, but that McSorley's actions were outside of those norms. Even a slash directed at the upper shoulder area was too risky (that it might miss, and instead hit the head) to be covered under any consent.

A rugby player was convicted of manslaughter when he aimed to "Pile drive [an opponent] hardest I could into ground" and ended up causing his death: R. v. C.(C.), 2009 ONCJ 249. The judge noted that consent will be implied "with respect to force that is outside the rules but within the scope of the accepted standards by which the game is played." He also found that "[t]he defendant intentionally applied force that was outside the rules of the game or any standard by which the game is played. [The deceased] did not explicitly consent to that force and I am satisfied beyond any doubt that no such consent can be implied."

The issue will be what degree of contact and force was consented to. The factors often cited come from R. v. Cey, 1989 SKCA:

the game of hockey involves a continuous series of assaults. Obviously, most of the body contact is consented to merely by the decision to participate in the sport. To determine at what point this consent disappears is not an easy task, but it must be identified in order to determine when a player moves from conduct calling for the imposition of a penalty into conduct which involves a criminal assault calling for a criminal conviction and sentence

The conditions under which the game in question is played, the nature of the act which forms the subject-matter of the charge, the extent of the force employed, the degree of risk of injury, and the probabilities of serious harm are, of course, all matters of fact to be determined with reference to the whole of the circumstances. In large part, they form the ingredients which ought to be looked to in determining whether in all of the circumstances the ambit of the consent at issue in any given case was exceeded.

Bountygate seems trickier

The rest of this is opinion and is less well researched. I do not believe the above theory of liability (assault vitiating implied consent) is easily applicable to the circumstances of of Bountygate. First, I am not sure this theory of assault is applied in the United States. Second, it seems to me that there would be near insurmountable evidentiary hurdles in establishing that any particular tackle was motivated by an intent to injure (normally, ulterior intent is irrelevant for assault, but it seems to be a factor in considering whether implied consent has been vitiated in the sports context).

However, there may be some kind of conspiracy-based offence available. Given that the offence would have happened entirely in the United States, it would be state or U.S. federal law that would apply and I will need to leave it to another answer to fill in the details of this theory, if it would indeed be viable.

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  • 1
    vitiating - learned a new word, thanks!
    – AnoE
    Dec 5, 2022 at 10:28
  • 2
    From this question alone, it might seem that British Columbia is a very violent place. Dec 5, 2022 at 13:35
  • @Mindwin, or you conclude that British Columbia is less tolerant of physical violence in sports, possibly making it less violent than other places. Dec 5, 2022 at 20:06
  • @Mindwin I made the opposite conclusion. I think BC is a very peaceful place because someone was charged with assault in a hockey game from slashing. I would imagine places that see regular violence wouldn't even bat an eye at what happened.
    – Nelson
    Dec 6, 2022 at 1:13
  • 1
    Nelson and computercarguy: who in their sane mind would reach a conclusion with a single data point? I was joking. Dec 6, 2022 at 19:23
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I know you're asking from a USA perspective but certainly in the UK this has happened on a number of occasions.

On April 16, 1994, in a Scottish Premiership fixture against Raith Rovers, Rangers striker Duncan Ferguson decided to headbutt defender John McStay. It was an incident that would land him a three-month prison sentence for assault.

link

Also probably more famously (in the UK).

He was also sentenced to 14 days in prison by a magistrate after pleading guilty to common assault, but that was overturned by a judge at the end of March, who ruled the player should not be jailed simply because he is a public figure.

Eric Cantona

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Back in 1955, there was a stick incident between the Boston Bruins' Hal Laycoe and the Montreal Canadiens' Maurice Richard (aka "Rocket Richard") that nearly resulted in Richard's arrest by the Boston PD (the Montreal players barred the locker room door to prevent the police from entering) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Riot#Incident).

The aftermath of that incident continued, with Richard suspended through the rest of the season (including the playoffs). A large riot ensued at the next Montreal home game.

Some say that the Richard Riot was one of the sparks that set off Quebec's Quiet Revolution.

Hockey is important in Montreal - even when it happens in Boston.

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