Sports Crimes

Rules of law set the standard of conduct for people to follow. When a person disobeys a law, he is susceptible to two possible consequences. One consequence is punishment by the government for his crime, and the other is the possibility of a civil lawsuit for damages sustained by the victim of the crime. Damages sustained by a victim are governed by principles of tort law. A crime is an offense against the government. It is a breach of a duty to the public. It is conduct that is prohibited and punished by a government. Each state has its own set of statutory criminal laws. However, these statutes are very similar. Crimes may be classified in terms of their seriousness as felonies and misdemeanors. An act may be a felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another. Felonies include serious crimes such as arson, murder and robbery, for example. Crimes not classified as treason or felonies are misdemeanors and include such things as reckless driving and disturbing the peace. Felonies are generally regarded as more serious in nature. Felonies require a penalty of more than one year in state or federal prison.

Misdemeanors, though still serious, do not allow for incarceration for more than one year in county jail. State and federal laws both fall into misdemeanor and felony categories. Crimes against the person include assault, battery, robbery, hazing, murder, rape, and kidnapping. Crimes against property rights include arson, trespass, vandalism, and theft. Crimes affecting the public health and welfare include blackmail, illegal gambling, and prostitution. Crimes against the government include tax evasion, treason, RICO violations, and terrorism. There has been debate as to whether or not a sports participant may or should be charged with a crime for activity that occurs during a sports contest. Should athletes be subject to such criminal charges during a sports contest for their misconduct or is this better left up to the sports leagues and organizations themselves? Very few cases involving these types of sports crimes have ever gone to court.

High-profile athletes lead a life in the public spotlight and may often be held to higher scrutiny for their behaviors both on and off the field than the general public. However, should such financial and social status affect whether a prosecutor brings a charge against sports participants for intentionally injurious conduct during a sports event? Violent and aggressive contact among sports participants provides a vicarious thrill for the crowd, and such behavior is generally perceived to be a legitimate part of the game, not a matter for criminal courts. Still, violence in the sport of hockey has been prosecuted in Canadian courts.

Types of Crimes

Criminal law is certainly a factor to be considered in sports. For example, numerous federal and state laws outlaw the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs, sports gambling, ticket scalping, sports bribery, and the influence of organized crime in sports. Additionally, sports agents who fail to register with the appropriate state agency or those who offer financial inducements to a student-athlete may be subject to criminal and civil penalties for such actions. Much of the violence found in sports would constitute crimes against the person if it occurred outside the sports contest. Players hit, punch, check, trip, and commit other aggressive and violent acts during the course of a sporting event. Such conduct is usually considered part of the game, but occasionally the conduct is so outrageous that a criminal charge might be warranted. Some states are adopting legislation to address intentional injuries to sports participants, particularly sports officials.

Contact Sports

Athletes in contact sports are trained to be aggressive and are often encouraged to make violent plays even as children. In the sports of football, hockey, and boxing, for example, participants are encouraged from a young age to hurt the opponent. Clearly, this is the ultimate goal of boxing. Are hockey players encouraged to use their sticks as potentially deadly weapons? Are football players taught to hit each other by leading with their head and hitting a vulnerable opponent? Should the aggressive and sometimes out-of-control behaviors by athletes during a sports contest be subject to criminal law?

General Criminal Law Principles

Burden of Proof: Prosecutors who believe that illegal behavior has occurred during a sports contest must prove their criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is more difficult than the preponderance of evidence test in tort law. It is more difficult to prove that a defendant is guilty of a crime than liable in tort. If the defendant is found guilty of a crime, the judge must then render a sentence. Most criminal laws dictate a minimum and maximum sentence, and the judge must consider mitigating factors that might reduce a sentence.

Defenses to Criminal Charges

The defenses to crimes of consent to contact, self-defense, and a general reluctance by the federal and state government to prosecute alleged crimes have limited the exposure of criminal law in the sports context. Additionally, if a player reasonably fears imminent harm by an opposing player, the defense of self-defense can often overcome the prosecution’s attempt to show intent to injure.

Criminal Intent

The essence of criminal law is that the perpetrator has formed intent to commit a crime and then carried out that intent. Such intent is referred to as the mens rea, and the act itself is called the actus reus. Both elements are necessary for most criminal convictions. A person cannot be punished for having criminal thoughts alone. However, the crime of conspiracy does punish wrongdoers for agreeing to commit a future crime. Additionally, if an individual attempts to commit a crime and fails, he or she may be punished; attempted murder is one example. In other words, the attempt was a crime even though it failed. To get a criminal conviction, the prosecutor generally has to prove that the defendant had the intent to commit an unlawful act.

Assault and Battery

The crimes of assault and battery would likely be the most prevalent crimes in sports. An assault is a willful attempt or willful threat to inflict injury upon another person. It is also defined as intentionally placing someone in fear of imminent bodily harm. A battery is the actual intentional physical contact. It is sometimes referred to as a successful assault. When an assault and/or battery involves a weapon, serious bodily injury, deadly force, or when the assault or battery is committed in conjunction with another crime, the term aggravated is often used.

Amateur Sports

College athletes have become targets for illegal gambling activities, particularly since student-athletes are not paid for their services. Additionally, there have been recent attempts to outlaw all betting on any Olympic, college, or other amateur sports nationwide. More than $500 million is wagered on intercollegiate sports each year in Nevada.[1]

College Incidents

In October 1951, three University of Kentucky players were arrested for taking bribes to shave points in a game in New York’s Madison Square Garden two years earlier. In November 1981, Rick Kuhn and four others were found guilty and sentenced to jail for game fixing. Kuhn was a member of the Boston College basketball team. In 1995, Kevin Pendergast, a placekicker from Notre Dame placed a bet of $20,185 in Las Vegas that Northwestern University’s basketball team would lose to the University of Michigan by 25.5 points. Pendergast, along with Dewey Williams and Dion Lee (both Northwestern players), agreed to shave points in exchange for money.  All three were found guilty and sentenced to prison.[2]

 Crimes Against Sports Officials

Numerous examples of players, parents, and other spectators attacking referees and umpires have forced states to enact legislation to protect sports officials from violence. Many states have tort laws related to the protection of sports officials.

Ticket Scalping

Ticket scalping is the process of legitimately purchasing a ticket (or large numbers of tickets) from a legitimate source and then reselling the tickets on the street for more money than the legitimate price. Some States have adopted laws regulating ticket scalpers and provide for civil and criminal penalties. Scalping can be a highly profitable business, particularly when the event is in high demand.

Sports Gambling

Sample College Policy

A student-athlete is not eligible to compete if he/she knowingly:

  • Provides information to individuals involved in organized gambling activities concerning intercollegiate athletics competition,
  • Solicits a bet on any intercollegiate team,
  • Accepts a bet on any team representing the institution,
  • Solicits or accepts a bet on any intercollegiate competition for any item (e.g., cash, shirt, dinner) that has tangible value, or
  • Participates in any gambling activity that involves intercollegiate or professional athletics, through a bookmaker, parlay card, or any other method employed by organized gambling

In 1992 Congress enacted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that prevents states from sponsoring sports-based betting other than in Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. Since gambling often involves interstate commerce, Article I of the U.S. Constitution allows the federal government to regulate this activity. Sports gambling involves professional and amateur contests. Gambling can be addictive, a danger to the emotional and financial well-being of the gambler. Sports gambling is a major concern on college campuses. The NCAA has amended its own rules to address the problems and issues related to sports betting.

Sports Bribery and Game Fixing

The basis for the concern about sports gambling is that games fixed by players, coaches, trainers, or others defeat the ideal that the outcome of a sporting event is left to chance and skill. An important issue in professional and amateur sports is the role that the athletes, coaches, and even sports officials themselves might play in altering the outcome of a game in order to profit from betting on a loss, victory, or point spread. Federal legislation and numerous state laws have addressed the issues of fixing games and point-shaving, especially after the gambling scandals involving athletes in the 1990s. Federal and state legislation guards against bribery in sports contests by providing for fines and/or imprisonment. [3]

Professional Sports Gambling Incidents

In 1919, eight Chicago White Sox baseball players were allegedly involved in a conspiracy that fixed the World Series, and all the players were banned for life. The White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, became known as the Black Sox. In 1982, the Baltimore Colts football team selected Art Schlichter as the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft. The Colts did not know that Schleicher had a compulsive gambling addiction, and he was ultimately suspended by the NFL for betting on sports. He has been in jail frequently for his misconduct. Another notable victim of gambling impropriety is baseball player Pete Rose. Rose’s alleged gambling problem led Major League Baseball to ban him from eligibility to baseball’s Hall of Fame.[4]

 

[1] Id

[2] Id

[3] Id at p. 96

[4] Id at p. 97


Inside Sports Crimes