Last updated 25 October 2021

Violence in sport and offences against the athlete

The rules of any sport may determine what is acceptable conduct for the purpose of that sport. Sporting rules, however, never displace society’s rules, particularly the criminal law. For example, a punch in the heat of a football game may result in injuries the law calls ‘actual bodily harm’ or even ‘grievous bodily harm’ (e.g. loss of a body part/organ, serious disfigurement or injuries that, if left untreated, might cause permanent injury to health or endanger life).

Any application of force to another person, regardless of whether injury results, is potentially an assault (s 245 Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) (Criminal Code)). However, consent of the victim plays a very important part in determining whether or not a criminal offence has been committed. Players consent to the normal occurrences that are to be expected when playing the game, even if these actions are breaches of the rules of the game. In a game of rugby league, players expect to be physically tackled, even where a defending player tackles an opponent from an offside position (i.e. in breach of the rules), this would not revoke the implied consent of the attacking player to be tackled, because this type of rule infringement is a regular occurrence in rugby league. By contrast, a rule infringement in the form of a punch to an opponent’s head may be considered outside of a what a player has consented to.

Criminal liability could also extend to a coach, as an accessory to an assault, if it could be shown that the coach encouraged or instructed their player to illegally injure an opponent.

While consent negates what might otherwise constitute a common assault, there are levels of serious assault in which the applicability of the criminal law does not rely on a lack of consent (s 246(2) Criminal Code). This can vary across jurisdictions but, for example in Queensland, a person cannot consent to grievous bodily harm (because an assault is not an element of that offence, and consent is not otherwise mentioned in it (s 320 Criminal Code).

Players do not impliedly consent to dangerous or violent conduct outside the normal occurrences of the game. Coaches and selectors who select violent players and encourage their style of play by continually selecting them and giving them no warning to stop their activities might be considered to be aiding and abetting.

The fact that players rarely sue for injuries sustained on sporting fields (for a notable exception see McCracken v Melbourne Storm Rugby League Football Club & 2 Ors [2005] NSWSC 107) and that police rarely investigate assaults on sporting fields does not mean that some future criminal liability may not attach to actions that are within the rules of the sport but outside the boundaries of criminal law. Combat sports, such as boxing, and ,perhaps more particularly mixed martial arts, may occupy an uncertain position with respect to criminal liability, because of the potential seriousness of the harm that can be caused. Queensland does not currently regulate combat sports, whereas some other states do.

Protecting children from abuse in sport

It is a sad reality that some children are abused, both physically and emotionally, while participating in sporting activities. A common form of abuse occurs when sporting organisations, officials or parents place undue pressure on children to perform. The result is that children can suffer psychologically, emotionally, perform below their normal standard at school and in sport, and generally resist participation in activities they formerly enjoyed. From a criminal law perspective, physical and sexual abuse are offences.

Sport Integrity Australia (not to be confused with Sport Australia) took over responsibility for safeguarding children in sport policies in 2020. They provide access to guidelines and resources to assist clubs in creating child-safe sporting environments. These also include templates for recording incidents of potential abuse. The resources from both Sport Australia and Sport Integrity Australia can be located on the Clearinghouse for Sport website.

There are also screening requirements in place for people who work with children, commonly referred to as a ‘Blue Card’ (see Working with Children (Risk Management and Screening) Act 2000 (Qld) (Working with Children Act) and the Blue Card Services website for further explanation). Volunteers, trainee students, paid employees and people operating a business who work with children in sport may need a Blue Card or exemption card. A volunteer generally does not need a Blue Card if they are volunteering at the same place as their own child is participating in the activity (unless that person has been previously disqualified).

Criminal offences exist for individuals for example for starting to work with children without a blue card or for continuing to do so if charged with a disqualifying offence. Offences also exist for organisations in running a child-related business without having a risk management strategy that complies with the Working with Children Act or for employing someone without a Blue Card.

Organisations falling within the Blue Card system are required to implement a child and youth risk management strategy. This requires an organisation to include in their strategy eight minimum requirements:

  • a statement of commitment to maintaining the safety and wellbeing of children and young people
  • a code of conduct outlining the organisation’s values and setting out clear expectations of stakeholders
  • policies for recruiting, selecting, training and managing employees and volunteers
  • procedures for handling disclosures and suspicions of harm to ensure a rapid response to a disclosure, allegation or suspicion of harm
  • a plan for managing breaches, which must include a statement about the consequences for stakeholders who fail to follow procedures
  • policies and procedures for screening and keeping track of all blue card or exemption holders
  • a risk management plan for high-risk activities and special events
  • strategies for communication and support.

There are resources online to assist in drafting a risk management strategy, as well as many other aspects of compliance with the Blue Card system. It is highly recommended that all junior clubs and organisations consult these resources.

Finally, it should be noted that the law regarding the reporting of child sexual abuse was strengthened in July 2021. It is now an offence for any adult not to report to police the sexual offending against a child by another adult (s 229BC Criminal Code). A child is someone aged under 16, or 18 if they have a mental impairment. The obligation arises once an adult believes on reasonable grounds, or should reasonably believe, that the child has been a victim of sexual abuse (even if the abuse itself happened prior to this law taking effect).