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It’s been a few rough months for the New Orleans Saints. The ‘bounty’ program, in which Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams paid members of the New Orleans Saints defense in 2009 to injure players, was recently exposed. The NFL and Roger Godell have yet to announce what the punishment is going to be, though its almost certain to involve lost draft picks, fines, and suspensions. And to top everything off, Drew Brees still hasn’t signed a contract.
Also, that whole bounty thing? Might result in civil law cases or even criminal charges.
Generally, in sports, things that would result in legal action off the field generally are assumed to be ‘part of the game;’ the players choose voluntarily to assume the risk when they play the game. However, there’s obviously a line that can be crossed. However, if a player goes so far beyond the realm of what the rules of the sport contemplate that an opposing player could not anticipate their behavior, the system breaks down.
Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann did an excellent job laying out the possible legal actions that could result from the bounty action. Clearly, the most interesting are the possible criminal actions; either some form of battery against the players and conspiracy charges against the Saints’ coaches, including Gregg Williams and Head Coach Sean Payton. Interestingly, while Mr. McCann seems to imply that either cause of action has merit and should even possibly succeed, he argues that prosecutors are unlikely to bring the charges as they and the courts are likely to defer to the NFL’s internal regulations. Gabe Feldman, as associate professor of law at Tulane University, agrees. As Professor Feldman points out, there simply isn’t a lot of case law in this area in the U.S; these type of cases actually are more common in Canada involving the NHL. Whether this remains the case may actually turn on what happens involving the NFL discipline; prosecutors might be more willing to bring charges if the NFL’s punishment is seen as too generalized or too lenient. While the criminal justice system may be reluctant to intervene in the regulation of sports, that hesitancy might waver if the NFL does not take strong enough action.Which, of course, the last thing that the NFL wants is for the courts to get involved in regulating the sport.
Far more likely is for a player to bring civil litigation against the Saints; either individually or as a team. Here, there’s even precedent, as the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a football player can be made responsible for injuring an opponent if he acts with “reckless disregard for the opponent’s safety.” Whether that can be proven is a whole other issue, of course, since it’s probably next to impossible for a judge or jury to figure out if an injury occurred intentionally, recklessly, or accidentally. Football itself is not exactly a peaceful game.
Even then, the more interesting question might become what the NFL will do in such a situation, as it’s quite possible the NFL might get sued itself amidst reports that the Saint’s bounty program might not be an isolated problem. While the NFL might downplay the problem or even deny knowledge, this might become a huge problem and liability for the entire league and not just individual teams. Considering that ex-players have already shown themselves more than ready to sue the league, this issue simply will not go away any time soon.
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