Should sportsmen be legally responsible for their actions on the field?

The results on the men’s side of last week’s Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco passed with few surprises as a strong New Zealand team retained the title, defeating England in the final. The women’s competition, despite a Black Ferns victory, caused a few more upsets with France reaching a first final and Ireland defeating a strong England team in the first round. However, the most shocking news of the week came from an incident that occurred not on the pitch, but in the tunnel.

Following Wales’ 24-19 defeat of Samoa on Saturday afternoon, there was an altercation between the players, with the 22-year-old Samoan, Gordon Langkilde, most prominent among them. It is alleged that, during the brawl, two Welsh players – believed to include winning try-scorer, Tom Williams – suffered facial injuries including broken bones. Another received cuts to his face.

At first, such a clash may not seem out of place in a sport in which one of the most respected teams of all time, the 1974 British and Irish Lions, had a specific call of “99”, upon hearing which all the team’s players would charge into a fight in order to prevent the referee from singling out an individual to dismiss from the field.

Yet, the surprise is caused by the fact that in this case one individual has been singled out. Not by the referee, but by the San Francisco Police, who have taken Langkilde into custody and charged him with aggravated assault and battery causing serious bodily injury.

This is not to say that such actions should not have been taken up by the local authorities. If they had taken place on the street outside a nightclub, for example, then there is no doubt that Langkilde would have been charged in the same manner. However, it does raise the question of whether a sports field and what happens on it should be dealt with by the same laws as govern the rest of society. If Langkilde’s assault had taken place five minutes earlier, while the match was still in process, would he now be sat in custody?

Such an incident, of course, has precedent, not only with the Bok-bashing Lions of 1974, but more recently with the case of Manu Tuilagi’s attack on Chris Ashton in the 2011 Premiership semi-final. Tuilagi also took his fist to his opponents face, causing considerable injuries to his victim. Yet, while Langkilde finds himself in custody, Tuilagi was only punished with a 10 week ban from rugby, which was subsequently reduced.

At the time of the incident, disciplinary officer Jeff Blackett commented on Tulagi’s actions by saying that “had it occurred in the high street an offender would have been prosecuted in the criminal courts”.

Yet why should it matter which side of a white line an incident takes place? If it is illegal then surely it should be punished?

There are instances of the sporting field not offering immunity from the law, notably in the case of Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, who were charged with spot-fixing during the 2010 Lord’s Test against England and given varying prison sentences accordingly. Spot-fixing is obviously a different scale of crime to assault, but if one is to be punished when it is performed on the pitch, then surely the other must be as well.

However, it would be a dangerous precedent to set if police were to charge sportsmen with assault during play as it would be near impossible to draw the line between challenges that constitute assault and those that do not, especially in contact sports such as rugby, in which serious injury can be caused by the fairest of tackles, while boxing would be forced to extinction.

Even football would struggle to distinguish between the two, with Ryan Shawcross’ leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey in 2010 a prime example of an incident that could have been charged if it had taken place in the street, but was simply passed off as an unfortunate occurrence in the game.

More pertinently, it would have been outrageous to have charged Australian seamer, Sean Abbott, with man-slaughter for bowling the bouncer that tragically caused batsman Phillip Hughes’ death during a Sheffield Shield match in 2014. But, if the incident had taken place outside of the professional sporting environment, would such procedures have been undertaken?

Therefore, had Langkilde attacked his opponents on the field of play instead of in the tunnel, it is likely that he would have simply been banned from rugby for a period of time rather than criminally charged.

Yet, while the Samoan may bemoan his bad timing, incidents such as this that take place during a match should be left to the referee or umpire to adjudicate, not the courts, or we will risk losing the sports that we love at the intensity that we know.

Image: Jesús Gorriti

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