Violence in Sport: What Does the Law Say?

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without a footy player being in the media spotlight for a criminal offence – whether ‘recreational’ drug use, a nightclub brawl, or even worse, domestic violence.

Believe it or not, many footballers have even committed crimes in front of your very eyes! You may have even cheered them on as they were performing criminal acts.

You might scratch your head and wonder how such a statement can be made. To answer your question, try and think back to the last ‘big fight’ you saw on Friday night footy or perhaps during the State of Origin.

Whilst many take a ‘good fight’ as part and parcel of a great match, why is it that players involved in serious acts of violence are never charged with criminal offences?

Putting aside the fist fight example, what about when one player intentionally or recklessly commits a ‘head-high’ tackle, and the opponent is left unconscious on the ground. Is that a criminal offence?

If it is, then why are offending player only put on report, or suspended by the NRL judiciary, rather than criminally prosecuted like other perpetrators of violence?

Criminal Law and Sports

Given that on-field violence is so readily excused, you might be forgiven for thinking there is special legislation in place that renders otherwise violent conduct legal, as long as it occurred on the sporting field.

Quite simply there are no such laws. However, the interaction between criminal law and sport is more detailed and interesting then you might expect. Indeed, the case law provides guidance as to what kinds of violent acts are legal, and more importantly, the circumstances in which violence on the sporting field crosses the threshold and becomes illegal.

Case Law

In R v Stanley (unreported, NSWCCA, 7 April 1995), the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal stated:

“in an organized game of rugby league the players consent to acts of violence and acts of substantial violence, and the risks of injury, from the minor to the serious, flowing therefrom, provided that those acts occurred during the course of play in accordance with the rules and usages of the game.

Players are not to be taken as consenting to the malicious use of violence intended or recklessly to cause grievous bodily injury.

The policy of the law will not permit the mere occasion of a rugby league match to render innocent or otherwise excuse conduct which can discretely be found, beyond reasonable doubt, to constitute a criminal offence.”

A number of important principles stem from the above passage:

1. When participating in physical or inherently violent sports, players are taken to impliedly consent to physical violence and the associated injuries that might flow from that violence;

2. As long as the violence is within the rules and parameters of the sport, no illegal act is perpetrated when another player is injured as a result of the opponent’s conduct; and

3. When the level or nature of violence goes beyond the rules and parameters of the game, it is potentially rendered illegal, and is not to be excused just because it was perpetrated in the context of a physical sport.

In other words, each time a footy player decides to break the rules by participating in a fist fight, or by intentionally or recklessly performing a ‘head high’ tackle, they are potentially committing a criminal offence.

Given that ‘a bit of biff’ is ingrained in our sporting culture, it is unlikely police will be running onto a field to arrest footy players. However, a player who, through an impermissible level of violence, injures, incapacitates, or worse still kills another player does risk criminal prosecution.

Whilst police will invariably turn a blind eye to ‘minor’ assaults on the sporting field, there is no legal reason for them not to arrest and charge a player who seriously injures another through intentional or reckless violence which is outside the parameters of the game.

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About Wali Shukoor

Wali Shukoor is a Senior Criminal Lawyer at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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