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Spoilsport
What is the legal position regarding injuries and even death in sport accidents?

The Criminal Court of Vigo, Spain, sent a football-player to jail for four months and fined him Euro1,210 for something he did during a game. It was not for match-fixing or doping. It was for playing rough football. But then, isn’t football a rough and tough game?
 
In this case, we have told you the answer before asking, ‘you be the judge’. There is more to come when a judgement sets a precedent; Spanish law demands punishment for the “intention of undermining the physical integrity of the competitor.” This opens a Pandora’s Box.
 
Some sports are dangerous; others hazardous. In this case, the opponent was sent crashing, after a tackle, into an advertising hoarding’s steel pole. The result was a skull injury and an open wound. Money makes the mare go, even in human sports; and the more the money, greater the passion to win. This, often, leads to injury; even death. Motor sports, two- and four-wheeled, skiing, cycling, even cricket, all have their share of fatalities. Boxing is a pure contact sport where injury to the opponent is the intent from the first bell. So is the case in American football. Rugby is no less violent. In fact, formal wrestling looks decidedly a ‘sissy’ event.
 
The question that now agitates the mind is: ‘Where does one draw the line?’
Tackles in football are part of the game. If illegal, the player is penalised in varying degrees. But some moves are legitimate. The referee does not rule them as foul. What happens when, in such a situation, a rival player injures himself? ‘Fair’ on the field, but ‘Foul’ in a court of law? Rubber pucks put more stitches on ice-hockey-players than maybe all other sports combined. The rink is a dangerous playing field. Ask Wayne Gretsky or the goalies. Is a puck a lethal weapon?
 
Muhammad Ali, the ‘Greatest’, is said to be a victim of Parkinson’s disease. He started his career as an Olympic champ, named Cassius Clay. Over the years, he fought many fights and regained his crown often. His condition is attributed to the many head injuries he must have received over the years. Does that make all his opponents criminally liable? Unless, of course, one can prove that he never landed a blow to Ali’s head!
The situation is now more fraught, with the advent of performance-enhancing drugs. Doping, in short. Cycling and Lance Armstrong, and 11 others, who followed him, come to mind. A drug cheat, sportsman or hanger-on, is criminally liable for transporting and administering. Jail sentences can follow in some countries where such substances are banned. This raises a not very hypothetical question.
 
Cyclists have been into drugs since the 1950s. Being personally involved, one can vouchsafe to its being a tough sport. Maybe, even the toughest. It’s no joke to spend six or seven hours, at average speeds of 40kmph on a tiny saddle, balancing oneself on two narrow wheels. And there are no time-outs or drinks breaks. How many other sports drain two to three kilos in a day? But does that justify the cocktails that are pumped into the system?
 
The law disallows it and punishment is severe. Yet, another aspect needs be explored. Consider this. A cyclist is on drugs. Drugs kill pain but impair reaction time. With slow reflexes, in a racing bunch of up to 150 cyclists, often going downhill in the mountains at close to 100km an hour, wheels can touch. A ‘clean’ cyclist goes over the side. And dies. (Such accidents are common occurrence with riders fished out of ravines, these days by helicopters.)
 
An innocent cycle accident? Occupational hazard? Manslaughter, not amounting to murder? Negligence? Riding under influence (RUI, not DUI)? Or just plain murder?

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected] or [email protected]

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