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Our Opinion: Criminal penalties should be considered for sports violence

The occasional bench-clearing brawl is as much a part of professional baseball as the seventh-inning stretch or the double switch, but the fisticuffs went much, much further than usual in a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants on Aug. 22, 1965.

Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, who was known for his fierce, intimidating style of pitching, was angry that a ball thrown by Dodgers catcher John Roseboro came close to his head. Words were exchanged, Roseboro came at him with fists clenched. Marichal responded by pounding Roseboro twice over the head with a bat. Amazingly, Roseboro did not suffer serious brain damage, despite the blood that was pouring down his face. He needed 14 stitches, however, and Marichal faced penalties that included a hefty fine and an eight-game suspension. What is perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Marichal and Roseboro became friends decades later, and Marichal served as an honorary pallbearer at Roseboro’s funeral.

The incident remains one of the most notorious in baseball, but the reality is this: if Marichal had whacked Roseboro over the head with a bat in any setting other than a baseball field, he would have been arrested for assault and likely jailed. But violence in professional sports – and, to an extent, amateur sports – is mostly excused by law enforcement as being an unfortunate byproduct of ferocious competition or, in the case of hockey, a crucial part of the spectacle. It might be time to rethink that.

The role of violence in sports has been much on the mind of Pittsburgh Steelers fans following the melee that concluded the Steelers’ Nov. 14 matchup against the Cleveland Browns that saw Browns lineman Myles Garrett rip the helmet off Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph and slam it over his head. And this was, of course, just weeks after Rudolph suffered a concussion in a game against the Baltimore Ravens. Garrett has paid a steep price for this action, since he is suspended for the rest of the season and is being fined. But, like Marichal 54 years ago, had Garrett done that after a night of drinking on Pittsburgh’s South Side, he would have likely spent some time cooling his heels in the Allegheny County Jail. Police and prosecutors have steered clear of violence on the field, court or rink given the assumption that sports leagues police themselves. They mete out punishments to malefactors like Garrett. There is also the assumption that players essentially consent to putting themselves at risk for injury by the nature of their work – the line between a punch and a hard hit in a football game can be fuzzy. But, just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that he knew obscenity when he saw it, the difference between playing hard and physical assault should be easy to distinguish.

Athletes are showered with privilege in our society, whether they are high school standouts or mega-salaried superstars. But, just like anyone else, they shouldn’t be above the law when they are on the job.