At a high school ice hockey game marred by flaring tempers and violent penalties last month, a 15-year-old boy came from behind and slammed an opponent headlong into the boards.
Depending on whose account you believe, the hit came just before the final buzzer or a few seconds afterward. Alleging that the boy intended to cause "great bodily harm" by hitting after the game, suburban Chicago prosecutors charged him with felony aggravated battery. The 15-year-old opponent is paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the tragic injury, prosecutors miss the mark when they charge only child athletes. The real culprits are adults, not the children who do what adults have taught them.
The children are victims of a culture of sports violence encouraged by adults who make plenty of money corrupting young athletes. The players who square off in pro hockey's nightly fights are adults. The players who deliver pro football's cheap shots and pro basketball's vulgar taunts are adults. The team owners, league executives and advertisers who market troublemaker athletes are adults.
In schools and youth leagues each week, youngsters suffer serious injuries caused by adolescent opponents imitating tactics taught by televised professional sports. To help cure this national epidemic of youth-sports violence, prosecutors should charge professional athletes for fist fights, brawls and other violence clearly outside the rules.
Prosecution would treat these adults as we treat other citizens, who must obey the law in their daily lives. After all, fans face arrest when they brawl in a major-league arena. But when players brawl on the field 200 feet away, they ordinarily face only league-imposed suspensions or fines that barely dent their multimillion-dollar paychecks.
A pro would almost certainly not be indicted for the very same alleged assault that will land the Chicago high schooler in court soon. In the National Hockey League playoffs a few years ago, Washington Capitals "enforcer" Dale Hunter skated halfway across the ice and deliberately slammed Pierre Turgeon from behind headlong into the boards several seconds after play ended.
Turgeon left the game with a concussion and separated shoulder. Despite calls to prosecute Hunter for the mugging, he escaped with only a suspension and fine.
With impressionable youngsters watching, we can no longer tolerate the double standard that grants professional athletes virtual license to commit assaults because "it's part of the game." When pros like Hunter commit muggings clearly outside the rules, their conduct is not part of the game.
Violence is an integral part of many sports, particularly "contact sports," which depend on assaultive conduct that might be criminal if committed off the field by ordinary citizens. Players normally consent to violence and the prospect of occasional injury, even when referees call a foul. But consent should not condone fist fights, muggings and other mayhem.
Leagues alone should police fouls inherent in the give-and-take of the game. When a mild hit might suffice, for example, a football player should not fear arrest for a hard hit merely because the referee penalizes him and the opponent is injured. Prosecution should result only when a player clearly crosses a rational line between legitimate athletic performance and criminal conduct.
The rational line would be drawn by prosecutors, subject to decisions by judges and juries. These people draw the lines whenever the law questions a person's conduct in close cases. By donning uniforms and performing in the public eye, professional athletes do not become immune from the process that scrutinizes your conduct or mine.
Prosecutors have found it difficult to convict professional athletes for on-the-field assaults, but focusing solely on the outcome misses the point. Juries occasionally acquit despite sufficient evidence of guilt, but this potential for "jury nullification" exists with any sympathetic defendant. Where authorities have evidence sufficient to charge a player for conduct during the game, they signal social disapproval as much by the charge as by the outcome.
What happened in the Chicago hockey game last month could happen anywhere in America. If children are to play in a safe environment, parents, coaches and other adults firmly committed to sportsmanship must send the unmistakable signal that violence clearly outside the rules holds no place in athletic competition.
DOUGLAS E. ABRAMS, a law professor at the University of Missouri, has been a youth ice hockey coach for 31 years.