Should NFL players be criminally prosecuted for on-field violence?

Since at least some of you are probably watching football right now anyway, this seems like an opportune time to tackle the question. (Pun intended.) If you follow our weekly NFL threads where Ed Morrissey and I try to predict the outcome of various games, you’re likely already up to date on the beating the Steelers took at the hand of the Browns last week. Sadly, it was a literal beating as well as a figurative one, with multiple Browns players taking penalties for various unsportsmanlike acts of aggression.

The worst of these, however, came from Myles Garrett, who ripped the helmet off the head of Steeler’s player Mason Rudolph and smashed him in the head with it. This wasn’t a case of roughing the passer or blocking below the knees. This was a vicious attack, ironically being perpetrated by a member of the team that was clearly winning already. So what happens to Garrett now? Should he be facing criminal charges in addition to whatever the league decides to hit him with? According to NBC News, that’s not likely to happen.

Had the brawl happened on a street corner, Garrett very well could have been charged with assault. But on a football field — where athletes play knowing there is a risk they will get hurt — the lines are blurry, experts say.

“If we’re going to be very technical, every single thing that takes place on a football field is assault,” said Tammi Gaw, an attorney and athletic trainer based in Washington, D.C., who is the founder of Advantage Rule, a consulting firm that works on sports policy. “But sports, especially contact sports, exist thanks to a doctrine of assumption of risk.”

As part of the doctrine, athletes consent to the risk of injury that comes along with physical contact and are paid to consent to that. That means they are generally barred from taking legal action against their league or other players if they, for example, get hurt after being tackled because they have voluntarily exposed themselves to that possibility.

Just for the record, Garret was suspended for the rest of the season. Given the millions he’s already made this season, I somehow doubt he’s worried about winding up in a homeless shelter. The NY Post thinks the suspension should have run for a full calendar year, up through this point in the next season. But is that really even enough?

Remember that Baltimore Ravens player Orlando Brown was originally suspended indefinitely for shoving a referee down to the ground after the ref accidentally hit him in the eye with a penalty flag weighted with BBs. (Brown suffered temporary blindness from the incident, leading to the lifting of his suspension. Some years later he was found dead in his apartment at the age of 40.)

Returning to Garrett, does the “assumption of risk” built into every player’s contract cover this situation? He literally ripped off the guy’s helmet and beat his head with it. Isn’t this assault? Is assault okay because it’s on the field? Technically, hitting anyone is simple assault, but that’s just life in the NFL. When do you cross the line into legal assault?

Mason Rudolph took the field knowing that he could be injured, perhaps very seriously, during a collision with another player, a bad fall, another player landing on his arm or knee, or any other “normal” football injury that may arise during the course of the game. But he did not consent to have someone run up on him after the whistle blew and commit a battery on his skull with a heavy object.

Seriously… is there a line in the sand here and, if so, when is it crossed? If Garrett has smuggled a prison shiv out onto the field in his shoulder pads and stabbed Rudolph in the gut with it, I assume we’d be having a very different conversation right now and the attacker would be chatting with the police. But somehow, because the weapon in question was a piece of football equipment, this isn’t being treated as a matter for law enforcement.

Playing professional football can be dangerous. That much is a given. But not this kind of dangerous. Garrett should be banned from the league for life. Whether or not there should be criminal charges filed remains an open question.