“I don’t care, rivalry or not, we can’t do that. That’s just endangering the other team.”
— Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns QB
“I don’t know that we did anything to make it happen anyway in the first place. That’s why I said we didn’t have anything to learn from it.”
— Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach
Twice before in the 15 years that I’ve been writing this legal column for the Delaware Gazette, I’ve delved into the issue of whether a professional athlete could be charged criminally for actions on the field. In each case, the question was hypothetical, spurred not by a specific incident, but by the general question of whether such a thing could happen, or had happened in the past.
The fight in the waning seconds of last Thursday’s Cleveland Browns/Pittsburgh Steelers game brought the issue to the forefront of discussion. For those readers who are not football fans, the Browns-Steelers rivalry is usually contentious, and this game was a particularly chippy contest with some questionable hits and several injuries. At the end of the game, which the Browns won 21-7, a fight broke out near the Steelers end zone. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett tackled Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph at the end of a play. On the ground, Rudolph tugged at Garrett’s helmet (either to try to take it off, or because his hand was stuck in the face mask). At that point, Garrett ripped Rudolph’s helmet off, was pushed back by Rudolph’s teammates and, when Rudolph approached him again, swung the helmet at the QB, hitting him in the head with it. Garrett was ejected from the game and subsequently suspended indefinitely, a penalty that he is appealing.
I’ve written about two incidents in which a professional athlete was charged in a criminal court for on-field actions. One involved a minor league baseball player who hurled a baseball into the opposing team’s dugout. The other involved a professional hockey player who viciously attacked another player from behind, seriously injuring him. But criminal charges very, very rarely arise from sports contests, and the reason why lies in the doctrine of “assumption of the risk.”
If I’m walking down the street and a man jumps out and begins to pummel me about the head and face, I am likely to take defensive action and say something along the lines of, “My dear Sir, please cease your pugilistic assault upon my personage.” And then I’m likely to call the police. But if I take up the sport of boxing, and upon entering the ring, my opponent begins to pummel me about the head and face, that would simply be the expected behavior of the sport. In the first instance, the person is likely to be charged criminally. In the second, he certainly wouldn’t be.
Football is not without precedent in these kinds of cases. In 1973, Denver Broncos safety Dale Hackbart sued the Cincinnati Bengals after a Bengals player illegally hit him late in a game that Cincinnati was losing. Hackbart suffered a career-ending neck fracture in the hit. Now, it’s important to note that this wasn’t a criminal charge against the player, but a civil lawsuit for damages against the team.
Still, the trial court dismissed Hackbart’s claim, saying that he had consented to contact as part of the football game, and noting that taken to the extreme, nearly every instance of contact in a football game would constitute assault off the field (imagine a random person tackling you, and then doing a celebratory dance over your dropped Starbucks the next time you’re standing at the corner).
Hackbart appealed, and the federal appeals court in Colorado overturned the trial court decision. The appeals court found that while football was a contact sport, it had specific rules about what contact was legal and what contact wasn’t, which established a clear understanding among the players about what kind of behavior was out-of-bounds, and what actions were simply part of the game. Since there are clear boundaries of acceptable behavior, there are also clear lines as to when that behavior is crossed.
Given that the NFL has suspended Garrett for at least the remainder of this season, his conduct clearly exceeded the bounds of acceptable play. It appears that Rudolph was not injured in the melee, and the Steelers have indicated that neither they, as an organization, nor Rudolph, as an individual, intend to press criminal charges. Thus, we’ll have to wait for a future incident to answer the criminal charges question when it comes to the NFL.
In the meantime, watch out for those Starbucks tacklers.