Tom Diehl Nov. 20, 2019

Pittsburgh and Cleveland football games are always riotous. It is not uncommon for emotions to run high in these intra-conference rivalry games.  But, the most recent Thursday night football game between the two went to an extreme. At the end of the game, Cleveland Browns star defensive end, Myles Garrett, and Pittsburgh’s quarterback, Mason Rudolph, got into an extracurricular scuffle at the end of the game.  That is not at all uncommon in football games. But where it went from there was crazy. In the ensuing scuffle, Myles Garret ripped the helmet off Mason Rudolph and smashed him in the head with it. 

The first thought of anybody watching this unfold was a concern that Mason Rudolph might be killed or paralyzed by this attack.  Somewhat amazingly, Mason Rudolph did not appear worse for the wear. In fact, he continued his physical altercation with Mr. Garrett.  Penalty flags went flying. Obviously, there were penalties all around. But the question for this legal note is, did Mr. Garrett commit a crime?

That is a tough one to answer.  Activities that occur during a game can be perfectly acceptable and reasonable, but if they were to occur anywhere else they would be clearly criminal.  Think of a boxing match. Because the boxers impliedly consent to being battered, the act of punching and shoving inside the ring are not considered criminal. Same with football. It is a violent game.  Hundreds of plays occur in every game that, without the implied consent of the participants, would constitute assault and battery.

The NFL prohibits certain contact, including one player striking another in the head or blocking and hitting another player from the back.  But in every NFL game, players are routinely flagged for those violations. Every illegal hit cannot be considered a crime.  

Can the behavior on the football field be so severe that is rises to the level of a crime?  Yes, but it is a tough standard. A prosecutor will rarely file criminal charges based on a activity that occurs inside of a sporting event.  In State v. Guidugli, Hamilton County Ohio (June 4, 2004), the Court had to answer whether Gino Guidugli could be convicted of misdemeanor assault for his role in a scuffle that broke out between members of opposing teams after a hard foul in a closely contested intramural basketball game at the University of Cincinnati.

On March 9, 2013, Guidugli, starting quarterback for the University of Cincinnati football team, was playing in a organized student basketball game at the University of Cincinnati campus.  When Guidugli’s teammate protested a foul called by the referee, his teammate and an opposing player exchanged heated words and the opposing player grabbed his teammate by the shirt. A scuffle ensued.  Allegedly, Guidugli threw a punch. The University police were called and eventually Guidugli was charged with misdemeanor assault. After trial, Guidugli was found guilty and was sentenced to 60 days of home incarceration.  The Court noted that, “given the unique social dynamic involved in sports, criminal prosecution of sports participants for conduct that occurs within the playing field of the game is rare.” Nonetheless, the First District Court of Appeals for Hamilton County found that Mr. Guidugli’s behavior was outside of the protected norms and his conviction was upheld.