Regional
11:29 am
Tue April 23, 2013

Why Bean Balls Don't Lead to Jail Time

San Diego Padre Carlos Quentin returns from suspension today. He’s eligible to play against the Milwaukee Brewers tonight.

San Diego Padre Carlos Quentin charges Los Angeles Dodger Zach Greinke in a game.
San Diego Padre Carlos Quentin charges Los Angeles Dodger Zach Greinke in a game.
Credit Denis Poroy, Getty Images

Quentin charged the mound and set off a bench-clearing brawl in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this month. Former Brewer Zach Greinke has a broken collarbone following that incident. The $147-million pitcher will be out for at least eight weeks.

So far, the only punishments from the fight have been suspensions, fines and ejections. But that's pretty typical in these cases of sports violence, says Professor Matt Mitten. He directs the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.

In considering whether the Dodgers could civilly sue for Greinke's injury, Mitten says the question to consider is "What is part of the game?"

Getting hit by a pitch, as in Quentin's case, is considered to be part of the game - so he would have no legal claims against Grienke, Mitten says.

"Then the next question would be, 'What about charging the mound? Is that part of the game?'" he says. "It does happen sometimes, but fighting really isn't part of baseball, and although courts will allow professional athletes to recover if they're injured by a battery - which is an unauthorized touching or contact that's not part of the game - and fighting would not be, we rarely see these claims brought."

Additionally, Mitten says the Dodgers potentially could make a claim against Quentin for "wrongful interference with the Dodgers' right to Greinke's services," since he'll be out for two months.

"But I think it will be unlikely that we'll see the claim brought," he says.

As unlikely as a civil lawsuit would be, Mitten says criminal charges are even more remote of a possibility.

"We have seen very few criminal prosecutions of major league professional athletes in the United States for this type of conduct that occurs on the playing field," he says.

Professor Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
Professor Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.

Mitten notes that there have been cases in Canada over stick swinging incidents and more vicious assaults in hockey. But in the United States, he says, "Interestingly, the few criminal prosecutions that have been brought...have involved athletes at lower levels."

The reason, Mitten says, is likely because in most sports, contact is part of the game. Essentially, athletes who play in these sports consent to contact - and any "foreseeable consequences of that and any type of broken bone or broken leg is part of it."

"A major league player, when they step into the batter's box, getting hit with a pitch ball is part of the game," he says. At the same time, that contact must be part of the rules of the game. A hit pitch at the shoulder or below is one thing, Mitten says; beaning a batter in the head is another.

For example, the NFL's New Orleans Saints supposedly had a "hitlist" of players that were being specifically targetted on the field. While Mitten says players do consent to the risk of injury - even serious injury or death - "players don't consent to deliberate injury, particularly organized pools like the Saints apparently had."

Mitten also notes that these incidents are relatively rare. As such, it's very rare that Congress steps in to enact laws pertaining to professional sports. Creating rules, enforcing them and imposing discipline, Mitten says, is left up to the leagues.

"These are relatively rare instances where we have very vicious incidents where someone is seriously hurt and it occurs outside the rule of play," Mitten says. "I think for the most part, players stay within the bounds of acceptable play, and then when someone crosses the line, the leagues step in and impose what they think is appropriate discipline."