Immunity for on-field violence must end

It is time that we, as a society, stopped treating on-field violence by sport stars as being immune from criminal prosecution and held athletes accountable for their actions in the same way as the rest of us.

This weekend’s round of NRL saw yet another ugly brawl between players during the Sea Eagles v Storm match which left Dylan Walker with a broken eye socket after he was attacked and punched by Curtiss Scott. Despite the fact that the whole spectacle was clearly captured by television cameras, no criminal charges were laid against Scott or any other of the participants in the brawl.

This whole incident, and others like it, reveal a strange and disturbing aspect of our footy culture. There seems to be a tacit, unspoken rule that the football field is a place where normal Australian laws do not apply. What occurred at that game was unquestionably a criminal assault, and a serious one at that. If the very same conduct happened in any other context, say in a home or at a pub, Scott would have found himself facing a criminal court on assault charges and would be at serious risk of a prison sentence. But, because he perpetrated his crime on a football field, the only consequence he faces is a suspension.

This is completely unjust. As a criminal defence lawyer, I represent people charged with acts of violence on a daily basis. In many cases, the assault is much less serious that Scott’s, but the consequences are much more severe than simply being suspended from the offender’s job for a few weeks. They get a criminal record which follows them around for at least the next ten years, effecting job opportunities and international travel- and some go to gaol.

There is a clear double standard in our society, with one set of rules for on-field behaviour of footballers and another for everyone else. This double standard is an affront to one of the most fundamental principles of law called “the rule of law”.

The rule of law is a simple yet powerful idea that the law should apply equally to all members of society irrespective of their status, wealth or power. Its origins can be traced to at least the Magna Carter in 1215. In the Magna Carter the rule of law meant that the King of England agreed to be bound by the law in the same way as all other Englishmen. Today, over 800 years later, it seems that we have developed a new type of sporting royalty who’s on-field antics are above the law. It is high time that we revisit this part of our sporting culture and demand that our sporting heroes be made accountable for their on-field behaviour under the same law that applies to everyone else.

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