Athletes don't always risk arrest

Updated: December 19, 2006, 5:12 PM ET
By Roger Cossack | ESPN.com

The law is clear: If you hit another person or spit in his face, you can be arrested for assault and battery. And if you really hurt someone, or if your spit is infected with a disease (think AIDS), you could go to prison.

The exception to this is equally clear: If you're an athlete and you hit, or spit at, another athlete during a football, basketball, baseball or hockey game, you have violated the law -- but you won't be arrested. Instead, your sports league will carry out any punishment, and who knows whether that will deter you from doing it again.

You won't find this exception in law books or state statutes. But you will find it in the way police enforce the law.

Exhibit No. 1: New York City cops were among the many witnesses who saw New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets fighting the other night at Madison Square Garden. An officer has the authority to arrest anyone who commits a felony in his or her presence. Off the court and in the general public, big, strong men who throw punches that can result in broken eye sockets are committing felonies. Yet no one was arrested and who knows if anyone even considered that. Had the fight occurred on the sidewalk outside Madison Square Garden, you probably would have seen people escorted away in handcuffs.

Jared Jefferies and Carmelo Anthony
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIIs this legal? On the court, apparently it is.
Exhibit No. 2: College football players from Miami and Florida International brawl. One player swung his helmet; another stomped on an opposing player. Suspended players and university administrators issue apologies and "zero-tolerance" policies are imposed to deter future fights. Yet no one was arrested and who knows if anyone considered that.

Why is that? Why are there different standards for conduct on the field of play than off it? Perhaps we don't care.

But there are times when we do care, and those times are defined by the "oh, my god" standard.

The "oh, my god" standard applies when a fight spreads to the stands and fans are in danger or become participants, like what happened during the Pacers-Pistons brawl; or when a hockey player smashes another player from behind, like Todd Bertuzzi did to Steve Moore in 2004. In both cases, criminal charges were filed against athletes involved.

The question is where should the line be drawn? Have we become so desensitized to violence in real life and what is on television that we cannot tell the difference between assists and assaults? Have we come to accept violence as part of sport in the way Romans and gladiators did?

Maybe, in this age of massive amounts of televised sports, we have come to redefine what we expect from games. Perhaps we've shown we want a little more bang for our buck than the game.

Roger Cossack is ESPN's legal analyst.