OPINION: On-field thugs just as culpable under law

Luis Suarez after that bite.
Luis Suarez after that bite.

PICTURE this: You are walking down Hunter Street minding your own business when a stranger, without warning, sinks their teeth into your shoulder leaving puncture marks. You would be entitled to expect, wouldn't you, that after a police investigation, the individual involved would be charged with assault?

However, while Luis Suarez's more recent decision to lunch on Giorgio Chiellini's left shoulder during Uruguay's World Cup clash with Italy appears to have cost the Uruguayan forward nine international appearances, it has not attracted a hint of criminal prosecution.

Sport, whether football or any other, does not give a player the right to deliberately assault or inflict harm on somebody else. So why is it that the same incident occurring on a football field is unlikely to lead to criminal charges?

The fact is, though the option of criminal liability exists, violence on the sports field is a grey area where police remain reluctant to intervene. One reason is that mere participation in sport carries an implied consent to suffer some form of violent intentional bodily contact that may lead to injury. The type and degree of permissible contact is that which is ordinary, instinctive and incidental to the sport in question, even though the act causing injury may fall outside the rules of the game.

For example, boxers are deemed to impliedly consent to not only being punched repeatedly on the body and head but also receive the occasional "low blow".

Similarly, rugby league and union players consent not only to punishing body contact carried out within the rules but also to possibly being injured in an on-field punch-up or an illegal late or high tackle.

But public policy dictates that there are limitations to when player consent can validate harmful conduct and bar criminal prosecution. Thuggery under the guise of a sporting match should not go unpunished.

Some conduct on the field necessitates the imposition of sanctions that lie outside the scope of remedies available to sporting disciplinary bodies. These include acts so violent or separate from the nature of the sporting activity concerned that it cannot be said the participants impliedly gave consent.

For example, despite the obviously violent nature of boxing, it could not be said Evander Holyfield consented to having part of his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson during their championship bout in 1997. Similarly, the then North Queensland captain Paul Bowman did not consent to West Tigers player John Hopoate intentionally poking his fingers up his backside during a rugby league match in 2001.

Those acts, if they were to occur outside of the sporting context in NSW, carry maximum jail sentences of five and 14 years respectively. Yet neither of these cases led to criminal sanction.

Don't get me wrong, I, like many sports fans, enjoy seeing the odd melee and a bit of pushing and shoving on the pitch, but there is a line. Luis Suarez crossed that line, as did Mike Tyson and John Hopoate. These types of deliberate and malicious assaults inflicted on the sporting field should be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

 Daniel Matas is a solicitor and clinical teacher at the University of Newcastle Legal Centr


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