From the fieldhouse to the courthouse
“For the kids that watch this game, I’m truly sorry. I don’t play the game that way and I’m not a mean-spirited person.”
— Todd Bertuzzi
“I truly believe that the teams will be able to deal with the situation more effectively than the criminal justice system.”
— Joe Deters
Cincinnati was abuzz this week heading into the annual matchup between the city’s major collegiate basketball programs, Cincinnati and Xavier. Coming into the game, Xavier was ranked as the 8th best team in the nation and so it wasn’t surprising that as the final seconds ticked off the clock, Xavier was winning by a comfortable margin.
What was surprising is that, despite holding a 23 point lead, Xavier’s All-American guard Tu Holloway was still on the court. He began to exchange words with members of the Cincinnati bench and then a UC freshman pushed him with a hand to the face. A Xavier freshman then knocked the UC player to the ground and the benches quickly emptied into a violent brawl. During the melee, Xavier center Kenny Frease was blind-sided by a punch to the face from Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates — a punch that left Frease with a swollen, blackened and bloody face. The referees called the game over and sent the teams to their locker rooms. After the game, Xavier’s Holloway said that the fight happened because his team had been “disrespected” and added that, “We’ve got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room — not thugs but tough guys on the court.”
In the days following the game, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said that his office would investigate to determine whether any criminal charges would be brought against the players. On Tuesday, after reviewing tapes of the incident, interviewing witnesses, reviewing the penalties handed down by the universities and talking to the players involved, Deters released a statement saying that no charges would be filed and that the players involved had, “reached out to each other privately.”
The filing of criminal charges against an athlete for on-field conduct is rare. At its most basic level, any contact sport assumes that there will be conduct that is acceptable within the confines of the sport but would not be acceptable otherwise. If a football player is returning a kickoff and a 250-pound man in pads and a helmet tackles him violently to the ground, we consider that a good hit and congratulate him. If you’re jogging down Sandusky Street and a 250-pound man in pads and a helmet tackles you, he’s likely to get arrested.
Similarly, if hockey players decide to drop their gloves and throw a few punches, that’s considered an acceptable part of the sport. If two guys in a bar decide to drop their pool cues and throw a few punches, that’s consider disorderly conduct or assault. The difference is that the people who are participating in the sport do so knowing that the contact is likely and accept the risk of injury or harm that comes with the contact as part of their participation in the sport.
When that contact crosses the line into behavior that exceeds what the sport considers acceptable, then criminal charges sometimes ensue. This has happened most often in hockey, the most famous incident following a 2004 game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche. Vancouver was upset about an earlier hit by Colorado center Steve Moore that had injured a Vancouver player. Three weeks later, when the teams played again, Vancouver players repeatedly went after Moore. Late in the game, which was a blowout win for Colorado, Bertuzzi grabbed Moore’s jersey from behind, punched him in the back of the head and then fell on him.
Within moments, it was clear that Moore was seriously injured. He was motionless on the ice for ten minutes before being taken off the ice on a stretcher. Moore would remain hospitalized for nearly five months receiving treatment for fractured vertebrae, ligament and nerve damage, lacerations, a concussion and amnesia. He was in a neck brace for another year before he could even begin rehabilitation. He never played professional hockey again.
Though Bertuzzi was visibly shaken and apologized publicly and privately, he was fined and suspended from all NHL and international competitions for 17 months. In June of 2004, the British Columbia Ministry of the Attorney General charged Bertuzzi with assault. He pleaded guilty in December. Moore sued Bertuzzi in civil court in Canada in 2005. It was reported that Bertuzzi offered $1 million Canadian dollars to settle the suit, but that Moore turned it down. In 2007, Moore specified that he was asking for $35 million for lost income and $35 million for pain and suffering.
Hockey is not the only sport to have on field incidents result in off-field charges. In 2009, a Peoria Chiefs pitcher was convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to 30 days in jail for throwing a ball into the stands after a fight during a game against the Dayton Dragons. The ball struck a fan in the head.
Athletes are expected to play physically in sports and the criminal justice system does not get involved in those cases. But athletes are also on notice that there are lines of acceptable conduct in those sports and when they cross those lines their behavior may result in criminal penalties.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.