The criminal law of England and Wales demands certain standards of conduct from everyone and sportspersons on the field of play have no special privileges compared with persons in the street. Participants in sport may, if their behaviour warrants it, be prosecuted and convicted in the normal criminal courts, and there have been several good examples of this process in recent years.
In R v Gingell1 in 1980, for example, Gingell pleaded guilty to assault after he punched an opposing player during a game of rugby football. The victim suffered a fractured nose, cheekbone and jaw. Gingell struck at least two blows, including one when the victim was on the ground; he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. On appeal against the sentence, it was submitted that the sentence should have been suspended, on the basis that punching was 'accepted' in rugby football. The court decided that it was concerned only with enforcing a proper sentence for the assaults. Even given that the original blow may have been the result of some sort of provocation following the tearing of Gingell's shirt, there was no excuse for the subsequent blows. It was an assault that merited a term of immediate imprisonment, but the Court of Appeal decided that six months was too harsh and reduced the sentence to two months.
During the 1980s a new precedent was established when participants found guilty of committing an offence were actually made to serve jail sentences for the offence. PC Richard Johnson was jailed for six months for biting off part of another player's ear during a rugby match, when he was found guilty of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He was jailed because an ordinary person committing the same offence would have been jailed. PC Johnson's appeal against his sentence was rejected by the Court of Appeal, yet the previous month the Welsh international rugby player Patrick Bishop, who punched an opponent in a club game, had had his one-month jail sentence for common assault suspended by the same court. The judge in the Johnson case did, however, comment on the leniency of Bishop's treatment.