As San Francisco police consider criminal charges against a Gaelic football player involved in an on-field incident that left another player in a coma, Bay Area attorneys say criminal cases rarely result from on-the-field injuries in sports matches.
On Wednesday, Officer Albie Esparza said police have identified an unnamed person of interest in the critical injury of 22-year-old Irish footballer Mark McGovern, who was playing in his first match June 25 on Treasure Island after arriving in San Francisco the previous week. The contact sport — similar to rugby — is one of Ireland’s most popular games.
Joe Duffy, coach of McGovern’s Ulster San Francisco club, said his players told him that after McGovern was seen convulsing on the ground far from the center of game action, a member of the opposing team said “He won’t get up from that.” Although the match was not televised and no witnesses have come forward to say exactly what caused the injury, most agree the incident occurred “off the ball.”
Gary Gwilliam, an Oakland attorney who has litigated sports-related conflicts, said criminal charges in on-the-field cases depend on the degree to which players consent to contact. Although players should clearly expect contact, that consent has limits, Gwilliam said.
“No one who consents to a hockey game also consents to getting beaten with a stick,” he said, adding that if a district attorney were to move forward with criminal charges, a clear intent to injure McGovern would have to be established.
Stephen Sugarman, a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school, said authorities typically rely on professional sports officials to hand down punishment for player misconduct in the form of fines, suspensions or even banishment.
“For nonprofessional league situations of willfully wrongful conduct, the criminal law system is more likely to get involved,” Sugarman said. “Of course, just because someone is badly injured or even killed while playing a sport does not mean that a crime has been committed.”
In 2003, Raiders player Marcus Williams won a lawsuit against teammate Bill Romanowski, who ripped off Williams’ helmet and broke a bone around his left eye in a fight during practice. No criminal charges were filed in the case.
Police in Canada are investigating a questionable check by Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty during a March 8 game.