Violence and Its Place in Sports

David Richard / Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns have a bitter rivalry. Although the games have sometimes been chippy in the past, this past Thursday’s game reached a rare level of violence,  even for football. A scuffle broke out near the end of the game and in the chaos, Browns’ star defensive linemen Myles Garrett ripped off the helmet of Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph and used the helmet to strike Rudolph on the top of his head. Garrett was then tackled to the ground by Steelers offensive linemen David DeCastro. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey then proceeded to kick and punch Garrett until the fight was broken up by the officials and other players.

Garrett, who suspended indefinitely by the NFL, has expressed regret for his actions calling them “embarrassing” and “foolish.”  Members of both organizations have emphasized that Garrett’s actions were unacceptable and that those types of behaviors have no place in football. Garrett’s own quarterback Baker Mayfield called the actions “inexcusable.” In this situation, it is impossible to feel remorseful for Garrett, but violence has been an essential part of his life for years. 

Myles Garrett is a very good football player. He is a 6’4”, 270lbs lineman and a former number one overall draft pick coming out of college. From a football perspective, Garrett has the complete package. He is big, quick, strong, and merciless. However, perhaps as a consequence of this, Garrett has been fined multiple times this year for hits that the NFL deemed too violent. Ironically, it could be said that Garrett was the first player chosen in the 2017 NFL draft because he is so good at the “controlled” violence of football. Most would attribute his success in the National Football League to his exceptional talent of inflicting harm on opposing quarterbacks. Garrett has reaped the benefits of this talent (Garrett signed a $30 million contract as a rookie), so while it might be difficult for a normal person to empathize with Garrett’s actions, one wonders how football affects not only a player’s body, but also their behavior.

In recent years, the NFL has had several high profile issues with assault and domestic violence. The news surrounding these events suggest that there might be some association between playing a sport that is extremely violent and being violent outside of the sport as well. This inference, however, is not statistically supported. According to a study done by the website 538, the rate of arrests for every violent crime is lower among NFL players than it is in the general U.S. population. The study, in general, suggests that NFL players on average commit fewer crimes, and therefore the notion that playing a violent sport will lead to an increased susceptibility to behave violently is not necessarily supported. 

This particular situation also has an interesting legal perspective. If Myles Garrett acted similarly outside the context of a football field, it would almost certainly be deemed assault. The circumstances of a football game, however, introduces an interesting angle to the issue. The American Bar Association defines battery as “any unlawful and or unwanted touching of the person of another by the aggressor, or by a substance put in motion by him.” A very sound argument could be made that Myles Garrett is guilty of battery, and likely other offenses, when he slammed a helmet against Mason Rudolph’s head. Criminal charges, in this case, can only be brought by the municipal or some other form of government. The local municipality in Cleveland has already stated that they will not be pressing charges, and it is very unlikely that any charges will be brought at the state or federal level. 

The second form of legal challenge would be a civil suit. Mason Rudolph could, in theory, pursue a legal battle seeking monetary damages for the hit to the head. As others have noted, this sort of lawsuit is also unlikely to occur because such a lawsuit would require proof that Mason Rudolph was injured due to the helmet, which does not appear to be the case. However, this incident brings up an interesting intersection between law and sports. In hockey, fighting is an important part of the game, and the officials only break up fights after many punches have been thrown. Fighting is an integral part of setting the tone of a hockey game, and it is also used as a deterrent against cheap shots and other penalties. If a player is injured in a hockey fight, is it their right to pursue legal action against the player that caused them harm, or is fighting just something that this person signed up for when joining the National Hockey League? It is clear, at least by the definition of battery,that some fights in hockey should be considered illegal, and therefore individuals could possibly pursue legal action. 

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is an even more questionable situation. In UFC fights the goal is to knock your opponent unconscious and win the fight. All UFC fights seem to fall under the legal definition of battery, yet the thought of one UFC fighter engaging in a court battle with another fighter is ludicrous. All of these situations are getting at a deeper and more controversial idea about when society is accepting of violent behavior. Whether it is football, or hockey, or the UFC, most people agree that there is some inherent danger or violence in the game, and that the participants are aware of the risk they are taking by playing the sport. This thought process makes a suggestion that we as a society are willing to allow people to commit brutal acts of violence against other people as long as it is in the right circumstances, which reveals a lot about how society views individual freedom, but also how society values entertainment relative to safety and well-being. 

Myles Garrett’s actions this past week were unequivocally dangerous and heinous. But the way we differentiate what he did when he swung his helmet versus when he sacks a quarterback seems almost arbitrary. Garrett is paid millions of dollars to hit Mason Rudolph, but only in a way that we have deemed acceptable. Earlier this year Rudolph was hit during a football game and was carted off the field while laying immobilized on a stretcher. This hit clearly did more damage to Rudolph, yet there were no calls for an indefinite suspension, nor were there any players or coaches calling the hit “inexcusable.” I think that Garrett’s hit on Mason Rudolph, while brutal, illuminates an interesting hypocrisy in society and sports. Through our support, and often admiration, of these types of contests, we are giving our approval to certain acts of violence, while deeming remarkably similar acts completely unacceptable.

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