Criminal liability in Sports.
Criminal liability in Sports.

By Oyetola Atoyebi, SAN


Sports and sporting activities date back to ancient times as far back over 2,500 years ago. Sports is said to be an important aspect of social life as it is also

a means of creating leisure as well as an occupation for many. It is imperative to note, from the onset that the two most significant levels of sports are; High-performance sports, meaning the occupational pursuit of achieving the best result or victory in

a contest of a regional, national, world or intercontinental level and Recreational Sports which seeks to maintain physical well-being, mental Practicing both high performance and recreational sport involves not only many sacrifices, taking care of one’s health and maintaining an appropriate shape, but also risks which result in damage to one’s health and, in extreme cases – the death of an athlete. Athletes suffer various types of sports injuries during competitions or training sessions. Much of it is due to the

behaviour of an opposing team or a teammate, either intentionally or negligently. Therefore, the question is; when an athlete causes injuries to a fellow athlete or a sportsman, are there any implications of criminal liability? In answering this question, this

article will examine, how criminal law deals with personal injuries and grievous bodily harm caused during sporting activities. Regrettably, the issue of liability for bodily harm and injuries caused during sporting activities has not been sufficiently and properly reflected in Nigeria’s criminal law jurisprudence and this has made it imperative for the author to resort to case laws and principles of Common Law Jurisdiction.

Brief Development of Criminal Liability in Sport

The outbreak of violence and bodily injuries over the years among athletes have drawn global interest and concern. Historically, criminal law’s interaction with sports participatory violence dates back to the 19th Century. The decided case of R V. Bradshow[1] was among the first of its kind. The brief fact of the case is that the Defendant was playing football with the victim. In an ill-judge tackle, the defendant kneed the victim in the stomach which resulted in the death of the victim and the defendant was charged with manslaughter. The issue for determination before the Court was if the defendant acted unlawfully by tackling the victim. The Court held, Per Bramwell LJ:

‘‘if a man is playing according to the rules and practice of the game and not going beyond it, it may be reasonable to infer that he is not acted by any malicious motive or intention, and that he is not acting in a manner which he knows will be likely to be productive of death or injury. But independent of the rules, if the prisoner intended to cause serious harm to the deceased, or if he knew that, his act produce serious injury and was indifferent and reckless as to whether he would produce serious injury or not, the act will would be unlawful’’.

However, with the effluxion of time and the apparent increase in sports violence which became a public concern considering the fact that aspiring young players were led to believe that aggressively violent behaviour rather than skilled performance was the pathway to success in their sport career, there was a drastic shift in the attitude of the Court as evinced in Moore’s case[2] decided after Bradshaw. In Moore’s case, the evidence was that the accused jumped with his knees against the victim’s back which threw him violently against the knee of the goalkeeper, causing an internal rupture and ultimate death a few days afterwards. The defendant was charged with manslaughter and was found guilty by the Court. Hawkins J held that:

‘‘No one had a right to use force which was likely to injure another, and if he did use such force and death resulted, the crime of manslaughter had been committed. If a blow was struck recklessly which caused a man to fall, and if in falling he struck against something and was injured and died, the person who struck the blow was guilty of manslaughter, even though the blow itself would not have caused injury’’.

From the above decisions of the Court, it is crystal clear that the Court has always frowned on violence in sports and imposes liability where it is committed.


Many contact sports such as basketball, football, boxing, rugby etc, involve physical contact which in other cases would amount to assault. However, sports provide an exception considering the fact athletes impliedly consent to such physicality. Consent, therefore, can exclude criminal liability on participants in sports depending on the circumstance in which the incident occurred. Hence, the maxim volenti non fit injuria (to a willing person, it is not a wrong) becomes handy in the sports arena. However, the general principle is that it is not possible to consent to conduct that intentionally causes bodily harm and hurt. This was the position of the R v. Donovan[3] where the Court of Appeal explained as follows:

‘‘If an act is unlawful in the sense of being in itself a criminal act, it is plain that it cannot be rendered unlawful because the person to whose detriment it is done consent to it. No person can license another person to commit crime’’.

It is thus clear that the doctrine of implied consent is not without its limits. Recently on November 11th, 2006 during an FA Cup match between Raith Rovers and Rangers, James Cotterill punched Sean Rigg in the face. Cotterill was sentenced to four months in prison for smashing an opponent’s jaw during the FA Cup after pleading guilty to punching Sean Rigg, causing him grievous bodily harm during the match. Passing the sentence Judge Robert Brown held:

‘‘The Court has for a long time now made it absolutely clear that this sort of violence on the field of play cannot and will not be tolerated. And for this kind of off-the-ball incident, a custodial sentence is inevitable’’.[4]

The Burden of Proving Crime in Sport

Prosecutors who are of the opinion that the act of a sport participant has occasioned grievous bodily harm bear the burden to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt which is more difficult than the preponderance of evidence test in tort law. Where a defendant is found guilty or has pleaded guilty as in Cotterill’s case[5] the judge must then render a sentence as well as fines as punitive measures to deter others. The Judge must also put into consideration, the relevant extant laws which dictate a minimum and maximum sentence, and the Judge must also consider other mitigating factors that might reduce or ameliorate a sentence.

Element of Criminal Acts in Sport

There are two cardinal elements that are used to determine whether a crime has been committed or not namely; actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus constitute the physical action of the crime itself, mens rea connotes the mental element and both elements are necessary for most criminal conviction except the offence of conspiracy.

Defenses to Criminal Charges in Sport

The defenses to crimes in sports such as consent to contact, self-defence and a general reluctance by the by State Prosecutors to prosecute alleged crimes have limited the exposure of criminal law in the sport context. Thus, criminal law in sports will consider the following measures and issues;

Intention to cause injury. Off-the-ball tackle and on-the-ball tackle. Retaliation and provocation. Self-defense and withdrawal. Acceptable contacts in the course of the game[6]. CONCLUSION

This article has critically examined the historical antecedent of criminal liability in sports as well as portrayed the current disposition of the Court in addressing the vexed issue of violence in sports. Furthermore, issues such as consent, the

burden of proving criminal liability and how punitive measures deter the future occurrence of violence in sports. It is hoped that measures should be put in place by relevant stakeholders to ensure that there is seamless performance of sport, especially football; ‘‘jogo bonito-the beautiful game’’.


‘‘The Court has for a long time now made it absolutely clear that this sort of violence on the field of play cannot and will not be tolerated. And for this kind of off-the-ball incident, a custodial sentence is inevitable’’.


Emmanuel Oluwafemi Olowononi; Sports Law and Practice (2022) Princeton & Associate Publishing Co. Ltd. AUTHOR: Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN

Mr Oyetola Muyiwa Atoyebi, SAN is the Managing Partner of O. M. Atoyebi, S.A.N & Partners (OMAPLEX Law Firm).

Mr. Atoyebi has expertise in and vast knowledge of Sport Law Practice and this has seen him advise and represent his vast clientele in a myriad of high-level transactions. He holds the honour of being the youngest lawyer in Nigeria’s history to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

He can be reached at


Victor is a member of the Dispute Resolution Team at OMAPLEX Law Firm. He also holds commendable legal expertise in Sport Law Practice

He can be reached at

[1] (1878) 14 Cox C. C. 83

[2] (1898) 14 TLR 229

[3] (1934) 2 KB 498

[4] date accessed; 19/04/2023

[5] Supra

[6]Benjamin Andoh; Personal Injuries in Professional Football- Legal Aspect (2010) International Sports Law Review pp 1-19

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