Football should take note of arrest after Adam Johnson death

The death of Nottingham Panthers ice hockey player Adam Johnson sent shockwaves through sport. So, too, now that a man has been arrested and subsequently released on bail on suspicion of manslaughter. The circumstances of 29-year-old Johnson’s death – a deep cut to his neck caused on the rink by a skate blade – were unique to ice hockey but other contact sports must be looking on uncomfortably at where this has ended up.

Sport lives in its own postcode, detached from the real world, which is part of its attraction. It plays by its own rules with little thought to whether there will ever be wider consequences for what happens on its fields or its rings.

But the Johnson tragedy is a pause-for-thought moment for boxing, mixed martial arts, rugby and even football. What if the unthinkable happened in their arena too? There is a widespread understanding in law that sportsmen and women, by taking part in pursuits which allow for contact – and sometimes aggressive contact, consent to the possibility of injury.

If not, the courts would be clogged up with assault cases from legal – in sporting terms – rugby tackles and left-right combinations. What they do not consent to by playing is opponents going outside the sport’s rules and causing injury, or worse. The line where criminal liability begins and ends is a blurred one.

As part of their licence agreement, boxers and mixed martial arts fighters agree that injury or loss of life is a risk of their occupation and waive their rights to legal recourse if things go wrong during the normal course of violent events. But that still leaves open the possibility of charges being brought if a fighter went beyond the sport’s rules and conventions, say by carrying on with an assault after the referee had stopped the fight.

It is rare for the law to intervene – in the main ‘field of play’ incidents are left by the courts to the sport’s own disciplinary authorities to sort out, but not always. You can go as far back as the 19th century to find instances where the law of the land superseded the laws of the game.

In 1878 in Leicestershire a Coalville player named William Bradshaw tackled an opponent, Ashby’s William Dockerty, in a football match. Bradshaw’s knee drove into Dockerty’s stomach with such force that Dockerty died the next day of his injuries.

The crown charged Bradshaw with manslaughter but with one official testifying he had done nothing wrong in the execution of his tackle, he was subsequently acquitted. The cases that have come to court since have tended to centre around violent acts that are removed from what would ordinarily be considered excessively aggressive football or rugby incidents.

An example of this was Duncan Ferguson, now manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle but then playing for Rangers, spending 44 days in prison after being convicted of grievous bodily harm with intent for headbutting Raith Rovers defender John McStay after the pair tussled during a match at Ibrox in 1994.

Welsh rugby player Richard Johnson was jailed for six months for biting off part of an opponent’s ear in a match between the Cardiff and Newport police teams. But there is no blanket immunity in law for sporting savagery.

In 2010 Mark Chapman was jailed for six months for breaking the leg of Terry Johnson in a Rugby and District Sunday League match with an horrific tackle. The Johnson manslaughter case will take its course but the fact that it is taking place at all is a salient reminder that what happens on the pitch does not necessarily stay there.

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