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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Violence in sport #1

Violent events at the Rugby League World Cup last week (5 November) threw up a couple of issues around violence and violence in sport worthy of reflection. Specifically, fan violence in the streets and an alleged biting incident on the field. This is a longer-than-usual post and won’t be my last on this important topic.

Much is written on violence in sport and violence in the community (and the difference is??). The sports media, however, apply little thoughtful analysis to the phenomenon. This blog post puts the lens of history and the law over the issue of violence. In 1863, the English philosopher, John Mill observed that “The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another . . . are more vital to human well-being than any maxims, however important, which only point out the best mode of managing some department of human affairs."

In a 1965 Appeal Court ruling, the notable English judge Alfred Denning stated that; "If one man intentionally applies force directly to another, the plaintiff has a cause of action in assault and battery, or, if you so please to describe it, in trespass to the person." Rather old-fashioned language but you get the drift. In the same case, Justice Kenneth Diplock indicated that if the individual inflicted direct personal injury on another "by failing to exercise reasonable care" - then the recipient of the injury has justifiable grounds for legal action.

Sport is not immune from the law. Many people think that, in a sport where violence is a known and accepted feature, the relationship of the players to each other is founded on the assumption of consent. Unfortunately, the consent defence carries little weight in philosophy and law. John Mill again, ". . . the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over a member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others." And in an 1882 case (R. v Coney) that led to the end of bare-knuckle fighting in UK, Justice Cave said “There is abundant authority for saying that no consent can render that innocent which is in fact dangerous."

Most importantly, these legal principles remain relevant today. How many coach education courses or sport administrators have a sense of what the law says and – how complainants have fared by abandoning thoughts of consent and seeking legal redress? More than you’d think.

In 1986, the British Home Secretary's Report on British Violence addressed sport violence, in reference to solving the problem of personal violence generally was: "Without the co-operation of victims it would be difficult if not impossible to bring offenders to justice; they play a vital role in reporting offenses to the police, detecting them and providing evidence for the prosecution. Yet legally the victim is just another witness . . ."

In a recent Radio Melbourne interview on why police don’t charge footballers for on-field violence, Monash Law School's Dr Eric Windholz commented on defences against on-field assaults and why charges are not laid. "Self-defence, duress are common defences; consent can also be a defence," It’s that consent defence again. Windholz again "I'd say they consent to conduct in the rough and tumble of the game, conduct in the competition for the ball. [but] I think anyone would be hard pressed to say they consent to being punched 20 to 40 metres behind play, or to be punched when just standing around when the ball is not even in play."

In 1965, Justice Devlin said “…There is only one explanation of what has hitherto been accepted as the basis of criminal law and that is that there are certain standards of behaviour or moral principles which society requires to be observed; and the breach of them is an offence not merely against the person who is injured but against society as a whole."

So you're the coach. To what standards of behaviour do you hold your athletes to account? More on this topic in future posts.

(photo source: BBC)


Brown, S. L. (2017). ABC Radio Melbourne, 7 July.

Dworkin, Ronald M., "Lord Devlin and the Enforcement of Morals" (1966). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 3611

Letang v Cooper [1965] 1 QB 232

R v Coney (1882) 8 QBD. 534

Walmsley, R. (1986). Personal Violence. Home Office Research Study No. 89. London: H.M.S.O.

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