by Luke Patel, Jim Pearson and John Hendrie of Blacks Solicitors LLP
Football is known for being a physical, contact sport and injuries are common place however, many who regularly turn out for their Sunday league teams will have been astounded by the case of a player being jailed for six months as a result of a bad tackle – a legal first and for some a contentious decision.
A knock about with the lads is an opportunity to have some fun and a chance to demonstrate competitive spirit, but in the case of Mark Chapman vs. Terry Johnson this clearly went too far. Sunday league player Chapman was recently convicted for Grievous Bodily Harm after a tackle broke the leg of Terry Johnson. Judge Robert Orme in passing sentence said, “This is a deliberate act, a premeditated act. A football match gives no one any excuse to carry out wanton violence”.
This opens the issue of who really was responsible, the club or the player, where the line begins and ends and whose responsibility it is to ensure that players are aware of the potential repercussions of their actions.
Jim Pearson, ex professional footballer and Sport Consultant at Blacks, thinks that a bad tackle can often be just bad judgement, but on occasion it can be, and was intentional. “It’s easier in the professional game to make a judgement when there are 100,000 fans watching in the stadium, millions of viewers at home, referees and linesmen, plus capabilities to show footage at slow speeds. However, in Sunday league if there is a sporting injury, you can only rely on the players, a few spectators and a (sometimes unqualified) referee.”
It used to be thought that what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch, but this case highlights that players’ actions can be scrutinised by the courts and that they are not above the law. Clubs need to stand up and take responsibility for their players, especially at lower level, to make sure they are covered for injury and are aware of the repercussions of their own actions. This case has highlighted the issue of how many are uneducated as to how they are accountable for their own actions and the severity of the Chapman case being brought before the criminal courts has shocked many.
Criminal proceedings are generally reserved for serious situations and so the law is more commonly involved in civil claims where an action is brought by one player against another for negligence. This normally supports a claim for compensation for the injury and loss of earnings – something which in the professional game would not be an issue thanks to the expert guidance and legal support provided to clubs and players in today’s game.
Whilst clubs themselves have historically been held responsible for the actions of their players, there is no doubt that a player can be held accountable for his or her own actions and so should not rest on their laurels. A poorly judged or intentional tackle can and will land them into more serious trouble than merely a yellow card!
Legally, the rules of the game do not govern the duties owed between the participants. If the participant transgresses those rules then he will ultimately face not only his professional sporting body but may find himself at the end of a civil case or in the extreme, as we have seen in the Chapman case, a criminal prosecution.
When it comes to cases such as these, it is very much depends on the type of sport and other factors including the nature of the act, the degree of force, the extent of the risk of injury and the state of the mind of the Defendant. Was it an instinctive reaction, error or misjudgement in the heat of the moment or was it wilful, reckless and with malicious intent? What is clearly evident from this case is that now it is time for sporting bodies, clubs and organisations to make compulsory third party insurance mandatory, or at the very least, have in place – no fault compensation schemes.
Jim Pearson knows more than anyone the impact an injury can have on your livelihood. He experienced this first hand when he was forced to retire from injury at the age of 26, leaving both his career and life off the pitch affected.
Initially, Jim had very little legal support, minimal insurance and was left on his own to deal with the consequences before his team stepped up and have been financially responsible for the implications of the career ending injury ever since.
Ex Leeds United professional John Hendrie, also a consultant within the Blacks Sports Law Department strongly believes that Personal Injury is so much more important in a non-professional game, because unlike Jim, non-professionals are not automatically covered by their clubs. “Professional footballers are trained athletes whereas many Sunday league players can be unfit and even intoxicated or hung-over, when playing football. This can decrease focus and increase the chance of injury.
“We would like to believe that players can continue to participate in their interests, without fear of suffering consequences for what may be an unintentional and over enthusiastic act or tackle, however, we seem to be moving towards a blame culture where people are quick to sue or prosecute, and so everyone needs to be aware of the legal implications of their actions. This particular case will only exacerbate the situation.”
There is a fine line between professional sport and its non professional counterpart but when players engage they need to understand that they become in part, responsible for their own actions. Whilst referees and spectators are likely to be judging moves and play, any malicious or dangerous act which causes injury to another may also be judged by the state and as was the case with Mark Chapman – the ultimate penalty could be imposed in the form of a custodial sentence which no Insurance Policy or Insurance Scheme would protect the participant from.
The Blacks Sports Department is nationally recognised for it’s expertise in the sports industry and is recommended as such in the Legal 500.