Last updated 16 August 2016

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 grievous bodily harm (i.e. injuries that, if left untreated, might cause permanent injury or death, even if treatment is available).

The criminal law of Queensland states that a person cannot consent to punches that cause actual or grievous bodily harm.

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 which are within the rules of the sport but outside the boundaries of criminal law.

In terms of simple assault (or common assault) where the injuries are less serious, consent plays a very important part in determining whether or not a criminal offence has been committed. Players consent to the normal occurrences to be expected when playing the game. However, there will be some actions that will still constitute common assault even though they may appear to be insignificant because they may or may not involve physical contact.

Players never consent to dangerous or violent conduct outside the rules of the game and 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 may be considered to be aiding and abetting.

Administrators of sport have an important duty to minimise unnecessary violence (i.e. violence that is not directed towards achieving the purpose for which the sport is played) via the sport’s disciplinary procedures.

Liability and children 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.

The Australian Sports Commission produced guidelines for sporting organisations including a document entitled Harassment-free sport: protecting children from abuse in sport. There are also screening requirements in place for people who work with children (Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act 2000 (Qld) (Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act)). 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 does not need a blue card if the:

  • person is a volunteer at a national or state sporting event organised by a recognised body
  • event is attended by more than 100 people
  • work is for 10 days or less on no more than two occasions per year
  • person is unlikely to be alone with a child without another adult being present.

Applicants must apply for a Working with Children Check, and successful applicants are issued with a Blue Card, which is valid for three years. The program provides for ongoing monitoring of an individual’s suitability for child-related work. If a criminal offence (e.g. a sexual offence or an offence related to the harm or mistreatment of a child) is committed during the card’s validity, or if a person is subject to a relevant work-related disciplinary matter, the commission may inform the relevant employer of the offence and alter or withdraw the certification. All sporting organisations should be aware of their obligations under the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act and should particularly pay attention to the recommendations of the Australian Sports Commission.

Sporting organisations should:

  • use only accredited coaches and officials. Such accreditation is to include information regarding the correct treatment of children
  • adopt a code of ethics and conduct for all people involved with children in sport
  • use a screening procedure
  • make clear statements that child abuse within the sporting organisation is totally unacceptable
  • appoint a responsible person within the organisation to ensure that child abuse does not occur within that sporting organisation
  • adopt thorough recruitment practices.

A sporting organisation that wishes to employ a person in child-related employment, and employment is broadly defined to catch both employees and volunteers (s 161 Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act), must apply to the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian for a notice stating whether that person is a suitable person. It is an offence to employ a person, either as an employee or volunteer, unless the person has a current Suitability Notice. Volunteer parents coaching or managing a team that contains their own child do not need 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.

It is unlikely that many suburban sporting organisations employ people on a full-time basis to deal directly and specifically with children. If they do, or if they use volunteers (e.g. volunteer coaches for children, parents volunteering in an official capacity on a club’s committee), the screening procedure is compulsory. A failure to implement these procedures not only attracts a penalty under the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act but can attract litigation by parents on behalf of children who have suffered as a result of some form of child abuse from an employee or volunteer within the sporting organisation. Finally, it is important to realise that child abuse is not simply the unlawful interference with children, it can be as simple as excessive criticism by parents of children’s performance on the sporting field.