Should Courts Referee Violence in Sports?

By Goff, Karen Goldberg; Mitchell, John N. | Insight on the News, March 29, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Should Courts Referee Violence in Sports?

Goff, Karen Goldberg, Mitchell, John N., Insight on the News

Athletes often tread a thin red line between competition and assault. Are bench-clearing brawls, late hits and unnecessary roughness felonies -- or simply entertainment for fans?

Hockey players routinely slam opponents into the boards -- fighting is as much a part of the sport as the Zamboni. Recently, however, two minor-league players were charged with assault for on-ice incidents. While Jesse Boulerice of the Plymouth Whalers (Ontario Hockey League) and Dean Trboyevich of the Anchorage Aces (Western Hockey League) were barred from their respective teams -- Trboyevich for the season -- each still could face a trial, fine and jail time.

A judge will decide soon whether to go forward in the case of Boulerice, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who smacked Andrew Long of the Guelph Storm in the face with his stick during a playoff game last spring. Long suffered a blood spot on his brain and a broken nose and cheekbone. He needed 20 stitches to close the cut on his face. "I couldn't stop shaking," Long said. "There was blood everywhere." He filed a complaint with police, and Boulerice was charged with assault to do great bodily harm less than murder.

Meanwhile, police in Fresno, Calif., will decide whether to present Trboyevich's case, which includes a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, to the district attorney. Trboyevich cross-checked Jacques Maihot of the Fresno Falcons, causing a bench-clearing brawl. Maihot was not seriously injured. Trboyevich was arrested between periods.

"The actions that occurred are not acceptable at any level of hockey," says West Coast League President Mike McCall. But are they criminal?

Legal history would say no. While many civil cases have been decided in favor of injured athletes, there never has been a successful criminal prosecution, no matter how brutal the check or the tackle or the punch thrown in anger. Three times since 1972, Congress has failed to enact a law on sports violence, suggesting that legislators believe such activity falls outside the realm of public policy.

James Howarth, attorney for Boulerice, is confident that the case against his client will be dismissed. "If what Jesse Boulerice did was criminal, then thousands of `hockey crimes' are committed on a daily basis," says Howarth, based in Detroit. "Every penalty for slashing, high-sticking or cross-checking must, of necessity, be considered to be at least a felonious assault. When a person decides to play hockey, there must be an anticipation that rough play will cross the line and result in penalties. Penalties will result in injuries."

Some of the most famous cases of sports violence never resulted in criminal charges or were unsuccessfully prosecuted:

* In 1968, during a National Hockey League exhibition game, Chico Maki of the St. Louis Blues hit Ted Green of the Boston Bruins so hard with his stick that he fractured Green's skull (this was the era before players wore helmets). Green swung back. Both players were charged with assault and acquitted by Canadian courts.

* In 1975, Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins became the first pro athlete to be indicted for a crime committed during play after he used excessive force on Henry Boucha of the Minnesota North Stars. The trial ended in a hung jury.

* In 1977, in the National Basketball Association, Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers punched Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets in the face, breaking his nose, jaw and skull and ending his playing career. Tomjanovich spent five months in the hospital, and his face was surgically rebuilt. Washington was never charged with a crime. Tomjanovich sued the Lakers and settled out of court for $2 million.

* In a 1990 minor-league hockey game, Tony Twist (now of the St. Louis Blues) checked goalie Stephen McKichan into the boards during a break in the action. McKichan was knocked unconscious, sued the Blues and was awarded $175,000.

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