Janne brought up a couple of interesting points under the more general issue of special treatment of sports under the law in his comment here. I wouldn’t be surprised to find plenty of blogs and websites on both of them created and maintained by professionals. But I don’t have the time to go look around just now. In the meantime, here’s my own two cents’ worth on one of them.Violence is a formally accepted element of many, but not all, spectator sports: First, there are individual sports* like boxing, wrestling and contact martial arts, where brutal, if not brute, force is the point of it all. Next, there are the various forms of football ranging from American football to soccer, where force is an inevitable element of the game but is not directly connected to the objective of the game itself. Third, there are team sports such as cricket, where physical contact is in principle forbidden. Baseball, though a similar sport in form, probably falls in the second category, since base running can and sometimes does result in violent physical contact. Fourth and finally, there are individual sports where physical contact is in principle forbidden (or unthinkable). The other side of the coin for the sanctioned violence are the forbidden kind that occur in the follow of the game, subject to a variety of penalties, ranging from losing field advantage and/or the ball to suspension (itself ranging from minutes to entire games) to advantageous scoring opportunities (penalty shots). In my view, it is the existence of these penalties and the rules to impose them that internalizes the violence as an accepted element by the parties to the game and gives it de facto immunity from criminal prosecution. Treat them as any other acts of violence, and the sports themselves would become unplayable.
And then there is fighting. Fighting among the players routinely breaks out in professional team sports in North America (though rarely, if ever (if I understand correctly) in soccer). In fact, it’s even part—implicit, true—of the attraction in ice hockey. They are almost always touched off by play action, but are themselves not part of the flow of the game. Indeed, the fights themselves interrupt play. Here again, though, the sports authorities are generally allowed to manage their affairs, usually by way of suspensions and fines, free of criminal prosecution. The players, by submitting to the authority of their respective sports bodies, accept this state of affairs. If this type of violence is accepted by the parties, if only implicitly by way of accepting a set of rules that impose penalties on aggressors, then it is difficult to distinguish it from that which occurs within the flow. More generally, note that the law recognizes a range of acts of violence that results in physical harm when there is consent, such as tattoos, body piercing, and some forms of cosmetic surgery. There is no inherent difference between the consent in these activities and consent, if somewhat implicit, in sports.
Of course de facto immunity does not provide an absolute shield from criminal prosecution. It goes without saying that spectators are not bound by this state of affairs beyond the wayward foul ball or hockey puck. And the authorities do go after particularly egregious cases. North American authorities have sought and won conviction of players committing violent fouls within the flow of the game that resulted in serious injury.
The third category falls somewhere between the second and fourth categories, and so let’s skip it for this post. It does pose an interesting question, but I don’t feel competent to attack it unless I am aware of the case law. (Do cricket players “fight” during matches at all? Is that “cricket”?)
Then there is the fourth category. In tennis, if a fist fight broke out between Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal after a hard-fought match, I am sure that it would be treated like any other fight such as one between, oh, you and me. There is no implicit acceptance of violence here. That does not, of course, mean that it would immediately result in criminal prosecution. The authorities in liberal democracies often will not go after simple assault and battery cases if there is no injury and no one files a criminal complaint. Even if there is some physical harm, they will sometimes let the case go if the victim has settled with the assailant and has agreed not to press charges. It should be no different in tennis, or any other sport in the fourth category. Unfortunately, with John McEnroe long retired, we shall never have the opportunity to know.
* For the purposes of this argument, doubles (think tennis) and series of two-player games (think team tennis) shall not be considered a team sport. Why this should be so deserves to be explored on its own, but I’ll reserve that for another occasion since it requires more thinking than I can afford at this moment.