Sport is central part of Australian culture. Most of us can remember a time when a sporting match has gotten heated; there may have been a few elbows involved, even some push and shove. Recently, commentators have said that there is a developing ‘culture of violence’ in some sporting codes. In Victoria, the football community is demanding harsh penalties for on field violence, following two separate occasions of serious violence in the latest season.
While it may seem obvious that players should not be subject to serious harm when playing sport, the reality is that determining what constitutes a criminal assault and what is just ‘part of the game’ can be difficult.
Assault is the intentional or reckless infliction of force on the body of another person, without their consent. The nature of a criminal charge often depends on the level of harm suffered by the victim.
Assault in sport is unfortunately a somewhat common occurence due to the amount of people who take sports seriously as emotions can alter quickly due to the change of circumstances regarding their performance in a game.
Breaching a rule may show that the player was reckless in inflicting the harm. For example, a player who spear tackles an opponent in a game of rugby may be found to have been reckless, because they knew that such a tackle was against the rules as it carries a risk of harm to the person being tackled.
However, breaking a rule of a sporting code does not necessarily mean someone will be guilty of criminal assault – a certain level of rule breaking is expected in every sport.
The rules of a game cannot make something that is illegal, legal. This is where criminal law can come into sports. Combat sports such as boxing raise difficulties with this rule. However, participants in these sports are said to have given their full consent to engage in an activity with a high risk of harm, and therefore criminal liability will usually not arise.
Players are usually considered to have consented to a risk of harm that is caused within the rules of the game, and also to that which is outside the rules, but still of a degree reasonably within the culture of the sport.
Ultimately, the level of violence that is accepted in a sporting context depends on what is reasonably expected as part of the game. This will depend on a few factors:
Clearly, you would be more likely to expect to be hurt by another player in a game of rugby league, than you would be in tennis.
Contact with another player while in contest for the ball (for example, a tackle in rugby league) is likely and expected, while ‘off the ball’ incidents (such as hitting another player while the ball is at the other end of the field) are less likely to be tolerated.
For example, a player might expect to be pushed in a contest for the ball during a game of soccer, but they do not expect this contact to extend to a punch in the face.
If the contact with the other player appears to be premeditated, it is more likely that a criminal charge will follow, because it can demonstrate an intent to harm. Whether the player was provoked may also be relevant.
Notably, players are never deemed to have consented to acts that are deliberate, intentional, reckless and which result in serious harm, or to acts that aren’t done in the legitimate skill or pursuit of the game.