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From the playing field to the courtroom faster than you can say “Goal!”

From the playing field to the courtroom faster than you can say “Goal!”

17.8.2012 17:50

But even “clean” athletes who compete in nothing more than an amateur league in Hanspaulka could find themselves in hot water.

The electricity of the recently ended summer games in London is still in the air. This year’s Olympics are being hailed as a sensational, feel-good, and thrilling event, and in one word a success, in terms of both organization and sport, even despite a few controversies. Except for isolated cases, like that of the Belarusian shot putter, for now it seems that the games can be regarded as “pure sport”, even if realistically speaking that conclusion may be rather premature. What is quite clear, however, is that the games were played free of any flagrant violations or injuries, which surely go against the spirit of the Olympics.

Top athletes, however, are not the only ones who should be concerned about unsportsmanlike conduct and other bad behaviour during football, hockey, rugby, or other sports matches. In fact, anyone can be held liable for their actions on the field, even amateurs who suit up only in their free time. Though few injuries occur, a person responsible for hurting another player during a match could be held legally liable. Criminal acts that are committed during sport, however, are not addressed in Czech criminal law. That is, the law does not clearly specify which acts may result in criminal liability. That does not mean, however, that criminal liability is out of the question, which has already been proven by Czech judges, including both the supreme and constitutional courts.

The case of the broken leg

The “what happens on the field, stays on the field” principle no longer holds true, as one unnamed footballer recently found out. If nothing else, he can at least bask in the glory of making a pioneering contribution to enriching Czech law. In the given case, the player fought for the ball so aggressively during an amateur match that he ended up breaking his opponent’s leg. In the words of the court: “using excessive force he struck the opponent’s leg from behind or from the side and tripped his opponent, which caused a comminuted fracture of the fibula and ruptured the deltoid ligament of the inner left ankle.” The injured player spent four days in hospital and was incapacitated for two months, while the “attacker” found himself caught in the wheels of justice.

The lower courts ruled that the player’s behaviour constituted a crime, yet they ultimately refrained from imposing a sentence. The footballer, however, disagreed with being labeled a criminal and took the case to the Supreme Court. He argued that he did not violate the rules of football and that during the match he did nothing outside the ordinary. In other words, he admitted to committing a foul but claimed that it was more or less a “normal” one. The player further claimed that similar actions are common in football—each player must accept that there is a possibility of injury, even a serious one.

The public prosecutor argued that, like other sports, football has its own rules that must be followed. Under these rules, no doubt there is tacit acceptance by the players that they could get injured during play. But it is something else entirely when a player breaks the rules, regardless of whether it is an exceptional case or a “standard” deviation.

Laws on the field

The Supreme Court sided with the public prosecutor and found the football player guilty of causing grievous bodily harm. The Court held that the purpose of having rules in sports is not only to establish suitable conditions for competition, but also to protect each player’s health before an action that would ordinarily lead to injury. Further, it held that observing the rules is in one’s own best interest. Thus, if a player violates the rules during play and the result is bodily injury, then even criminal liability – especially when considering the nature of the injury and the seriousness of the violation – cannot be excluded.

The Court also stated that it is not a proponent of the opinion that whatever happens “on the field” must be judged according to the rules of the particular sport and that violations of the law, even in the form of criminal liability of an athlete, cannot be ruled out. According to the Court, even those who commit offenses “simply” out of negligence, i.e. not deliberately, can be held criminally liable. On the other hand, the Court noted that criminal law should be applied to the realm of sports only rarely.

The case then went to the Constitutional Court, which also ruled against the footballer; in fact, an even heavier burden was placed on the player’s shoulders. The Constitutional Court not only upheld the Supreme Court’s decision. It also confirmed that, in determining the conditions for a punishable offense, whether or not the rules of the given sport were broken is irrelevant. In turn, this means that even though certain actions may be permissible according to the referees on the field, they may not be kosher in the eyes of a criminal court.

How to play according to the Supreme Court

How then should one behave in order to avoid ending up behind bars? The instructions were given by the Court itself: players may fight aggressively for the ball, but they must not “play dirty” or with guile, and they should show respect for their opponents. Players should also conduct themselves in a fair and proper manner at all times, and their efforts to win should not conflict with the principles of sports ethics. Moreover, each player must take responsibility for his own safety, as well as for the safety of others. This principle, which is not far from that of the Olympics, applies to other sports as well.

We can agree with the Court that criminal law should not be applied to the realm of sports except in rare and extreme cases. Nevertheless, as criminal law may in fact be applied, and since no specific law addresses such cases, in practical terms it will remain up to the courts to interpret the rules. It would be much better for athletes, however, if the line between what constitutes a “basic” foul and what can lead to a criminal charge could be debated further, not only between lawyers but also perhaps in the media. Undoubtedly, having clearer borders with regard to legal certainty and potential legal responses would surely do some good.

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