Should courts look more closely at sports?

Updated: March 12, 2004, 3:23 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Near the end of a lengthy press conference and conference call to discuss the penalty meted out to Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi for his sucker-punching of Colorado's Steve Moore, the NHL's top lawyer, Bill Daly, suggested that what fans saw Monday -- and, of course, saw over and over -- was not hockey and that Bertuzzi's suspension for the balance of the season, playoffs included, is proof of that.

"It's incumbent on us to send a message, and a strong message, that what happened on Monday night wasn't hockey," Daly said.

Todd Bertuzzi
Todd Bertuzzi won't be the last NHL player to commit an act of violence on the ice.
The message may indeed have been strong.

Bertuzzi's suspension may well cost the Vancouver Canucks a Stanley Cup and almost certainly millions of dollars in playoff revenue. But in spite of Daly's convictions, Bertuzzi's striking down of an unsuspecting opponent is, indeed, hockey.

It has been so since the game began, and it will continue to be so until the very fundamentals of the game are changed.

Even Daly's colleague, Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive vice president and director of hockey operations, the man who handed down what could be the stiffest suspension ever, acknowledged it, saying these types of incidents are bound to happen again.

"I hate to say this," Campbell said. "But wrong decisions will be made in the future."

Moreover, Campbell said things were worse back in the day when the league didn't monitor every game, when highlights of every game weren't replayed over and over as was the sight of Bertuzzi cruising up behind Moore and knocking him into unconsciousness.

But if the Bertuzzi attack really does reflect the game's inherently violent nature, then it also reflects sport as a whole and the special place it has in society. Although hockey is the only team sport that condones fighting (and Campbell was quick to point out that the Bertuzzi incident wasn't a fight), there are violent elements to every pro sport. Players and coaches, and even to a certain degree fans, accept that by crossing the boundaries and entering into the sporting arena (and we use "arena" in its broadest terms) the natural laws and rules of society do not apply to the playing surface.

Instead, there is the belief that the specific rules of the games and conduct surrounding those games will be justly and firmly applied by the games' officials and, if actions warrant it, by the sports' governing bodies.

Perhaps that's why when Ben Christensen of Wichita State beans an opposing batter who strayed out of the on-deck circle, ending the player's chance at a pro career, he is suspended for the balance of the season but not charged criminally.

Or why when Mike Tyson chews off part of Evander Holyfield's ear, Nevada boxing officials are left to mete out discipline, not local police.

Los Angeles Laker Kermit Washington was suspended 60 days and fined $10,000 in 1977 for punching Rudy Tomjanovich, a punch that some thought might have killed the Houston player.

Last August, Oakland Raider Bill Romanowski, tore off the helmet of teammate Marcus Williams and pounded him in the face, breaking Williams's eye socket and likely ending his career. He was suspended and fined by the team but no criminal charges were laid (Williams has filed a civil suit).

In July 2001 Boston Red Sox prospect Izzy Alcantara karate-kicked catcher Jeremy Salazar in the face mask and then charged the mound in a Triple-A game after being brushed back by a pitch. He was suspended six games and was denied his berth in the All-Star Game.

When athletes are charged for on-field behavior, it is not only rare, but it is news.

South San Antonio High School basketball player Tony Limon was sentenced to five years in jail after delivering a straight-arm to an opponent even though Limon insisted his coach had goaded him into the attack.

Given that sports popularity is at an all-time high and given the influence it has on all areas of society, law enforcement agencies will have to look more closely at bringing criminal charges for on-field behavior, said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport In Society, on Thursday.

"I think sport has gotten a free pass in many ways because it's held in such high esteem and has such a special place in many people's hearts," Roby said.

The Christensen bean-balling "was a criminal act and should have been prosecuted."

It is hockey, though -- and specifically the National Hockey League -- that has seen its attempts to police itself fall short, at least as far as police agencies are concerned, a phenomenon directly related to the culture of violence "that's been allowed to ferment in hockey," Roby said.

But Windsor, Ontario, criminal defense lawyer and player agent Patrick Ducharme said Thursday he thinks law enforcement has no business sticking its nose into the NHL unless they're prepared to staff each game and charge each player. Players who step on the ice assume the risk of being injured, and if they are injured the league will discipline the transgressor, said Ducharme.

His clients include Vancouver's Matt Cooke, who was slashed by Matt Johnson several weeks ago, prompting a suspension for Johnson.

"Where was the attorney general then? That was a vicious blow with a stick," Ducharme asked. "They should stay out forever or they should get in every day."

They've dealt with the symptoms of violence, sometimes criminal, with suspensions, without looking at the root causes. And the root causes are that they've not only tolerated but rewarded violence outside the rules. And also condoned a system of vigilantism.
Bill McMurtry

As far back as 1969, Canadian prosecutors waded in, charging Wayne Maki and Ted Green after one of the most violent stick-swinging duels in NHL history. Green required multiple life-saving surgeries and had a metal plate inserted in his skull after the melee during a preseason game in Ottawa. He was suspended 12 games while Maki was given a 30-day suspension. Assault charges against Green were dropped and Maki was acquitted.

In 1976, four members of the Philadelphia Flyers were charged after a playoff brawl with the Toronto Maple Leafs spilled into the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mel Bridgeman (assault causing bodily harm) and Don Saleski (possession of a dangerous weapon, a stick) both had charges stayed, while Joe Watson and Bob Kelly both pleaded guilty to assault and were fined $750.

Earlier, in November 1975, Dan Maloney of the Red Wings was charged with assault after tomahawking Brian Glennie of Toronto with his stick. Maloney, who would go on to coach in Toronto a decade later, pleaded no-contest to the charge and was banned from playing in Toronto for two years.

Roy McMurtry, then the attorney general of Ontario, was behind the charges, which he laid after warning the NHL to clean up its act. But in part they stemmed from a report produced by McMurtry's brother, lawyer Bill McMurtry, which examined the escalating violence in hockey. Although the report, which condemns the culture of violence in the NHL, was written almost 30 years ago, Bill McMurtry said Thursday he wouldn't change a word.

"They've dealt with the symptoms of violence, sometimes criminal, with suspensions, without looking at the root causes. And the root causes are that they've not only tolerated but rewarded violence outside the rules. And also condoned a system of vigilantism," Bill McMurtry said.

The lawyer, who played hockey into his 50s and who admits a passion for the game, suggests this parallel: Imagine if football players were rewarded with big contracts for specializing at hitting opponents out of bounds or knocking down a kicker with an illegal hit. Yet dozens of hockey players are rewarded for fighting with contracts in excess of $1 million, even though fighting is against the rules.

Campbell, pressed on the point Thursday, insisted the Bertuzzi incident was not the result of a fight and that even if fighting was eliminated from the sport the incident might still have happened. But McMurtry insists that by eliminating the fighting you eliminate the vigilante culture that permeates the sport, a culture that was clearly at play in the hunting down and battering of Moore.

It's clear the NHL is hoping the stern punishment handed down Thursday will prompt Vancouver police to step back from their investigation as well as send a message to other coaches and players about the league's position on this type of aberrant behavior.

But Roby said he doesn't think the league went far enough. Further, he suggests it will get to the point where players end up suing the league itself for creating the kind of environment where this type of attack takes place.

In apologizing for the attack, Bertuzzi said he didn't mean to hurt Moore. Either Bertuzzi is trying to insult the public's intelligence or he really thinks that "shooting a gloved fist at somebody's head" is a perfectly acceptable part of the game, Roby said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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