In contact sports, injuries often occur, and the line where an honest play turns into violent assault is a blurry one. The line gets clearer, however, when violence occurs after a play has stopped.

A few days ago, in an NBA first-round playoff game, power forward Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics elbowed Miami Heat guard Quentin Richardson in an altercation during the game. The scuffle took place in front of the Miami Heat bench, and Garnett emphasizes that he was trying to protect his teammate, Paul Pierce, from the Miami team’s taunts, and specifically, Richardson’s taunts. A video of the elbow can be seen here.

The NBA has decided to suspend Garnett for one game. The NBA’s executive vice-president of basketball operations stated in a letter to the Miami Heat that, “Garnett was suspended for throwing an elbow that struck the head of Richardson. This action is analogous to a player throwing a punch that connects.” By rule, an NBA player that swings a “hand” at another player, with an open or closed fist, and whether or not the hand strikes the other player, is automatically suspended for one game.

Thinking about the measly impact that a one-game suspension will have on Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics at this early point in the playoffs prompted a brief inquiry into the impact of the legal system on professional sports.

Not surprisingly, most (almost all) U.S. cases on the subject of sports violence are either hockey or football cases. Generally, these cases hold that a “player may be held responsible for injuring an opponent if he acts with the reckless disregard for the opponent’s safety.” Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979), cert. denied 444 U.S. 931 (1979). This rule, if it holds for more physically violent sports, such as hockey and football, will certainly apply to less violent sports like basketball.

While no clear answer exists as to whether Kevin Garnett could be liable for any damages resulting from his elbow in Saturday night’s game, it might do him well to be mindful about the possibility of liability from his actions as the Celtics climb deeper into the playoffs.

Brent Baxley

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