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Suh me

Sports | Should athletic arenas be outside the jurisdiction of criminal law?

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

As the aroma of roasting turkey wafted into living rooms across America, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh added a little Thanksgiving Day stuffing. Before a national TV audience, the second-year player repeatedly shoved the head of Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith into the turf well after a third-quarter play had ended. When fellow players rushed to pull Suh off, he sprang to his feet and stomped on Dietrich-Smith's right arm.

The display earned Suh a personal foul penalty and ejection from the game, and a two-game suspension. But what of criminal prosecution? Suh's actions would qualify as assault had they taken place anywhere else but an athletic field. Nevertheless, courts routinely overlook such on-field acts of rule-breaking violence. In 2006, another dominant defensive player, Albert Haynesworth, raked his cleats across the face of Dallas center Andre Gurode, opening a wound that required 30 stitches and resulted in blurred vision for some time after. Haynesworth was penalized, ejected, and suspended five games without pay. But no criminal proceedings followed.

In the aftermath of both events, Suh and Haynesworth appeared completely convinced of their respective immunity from prosecution, both offering self-incriminating public statements. "What I did out there was disgusting," Haynesworth said. "It doesn't matter what the league does to me." Suh, likewise, after a day of ridiculous denials in which he claimed he had merely lost his balance, posted an admission of guilt on his Facebook page: "In the past few hours, I have had time to reflect on yesterday's game and I want to sincerely apologize. ... My reaction on Thursday was unacceptable. I made a mistake, and have learned from it."

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Such statements could be used in a court of law. But should they?

The potential difficulties of prosecuting on-field violence are myriad. Should a pitcher be charged for assault with a deadly weapon if he intentionally throws a baseball at a batter's head? Should hockey players be charged for disorderly conduct for trading close-fisted blows on the ice? What if a NASCAR driver maliciously forces a competitor off the track or into the wall and causes a deadly crash?

In most cases, prosecutors leave any punishments to the discretion of team owners or league commissioners. But in some cases, especially in hockey, the courts have intervened. In 1988, Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars received a one-day jail sentence and $1,000 fine for striking another player several times in the head with his hockey stick. This past March, Quebec's director of criminal prosecutions initiated an investigation over whether to charge Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for a brutal hit from behind on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.

The absence of a stick or some other object that could be used as a weapon renders prosecutors less ambitious in pursuing charges against football players. But perhaps a glance at an NFL roster should change that. Suh is 6 foot 4 and 307 pounds. Few weapons are as dangerous.

Stern approach

John Minchilio/AP

Basketball fans may have gotten all they wanted for Christmas, but NBA Commissioner David Stern isn't likely to go caroling anytime soon in public. The agreement that ended the NBA lockout and set the season to open Christmas Day required months of negotiating, during which Stern drew public scorn for his hard-line stance against the players union. The league's head man has now presided over lockouts in three of the NBA's past four collective-bargaining deals. Fans are far more likely to side with the players in such battles, but Stern continues to endear himself to some of the richest people in the country-namely the owners of the NBA's 30 teams.-Mark Bergin

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