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  • Expelling fans who are abusive toward players is an obvious solution, but there might be other legal remedies teams and leagues can pursue to solve that problem.
By Michael McCann
May 02, 2017

In a game at Fenway Park on Monday night, Baltimore Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones was targeted by a fan who threw a bag of peanuts at him and missed. The fan was identified by stadium security and ejected from the park. Other fans, some of whom hurled racial epithets at Jones, were also ejected. The Boston Red Sox have apologized to both Jones and the Orioles, who won the game 5-2.

After the game, Jones expressed frustration that the fan who threw the bag at him was only punished by ejection. According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Jones called the punishment “pathetic,” noting that a fan who throws an object at a player could cause him serious injury. While a bag of peanuts is neither large nor heavy, it could, as Jones observed, become dangerous when thrown at a high speed. For instance, the bag could hit a player in the face and badly damage his eyes. Jones opined that in order to deter such misconduct, fines of substantial amounts of money should be imposed. Jones suggested a fine of somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000. He believes the prospect of a heavy fine might lead fans who are tempted to do something stupid to think twice before they do.

Jones’s comments raise the question of how disruptive fans ought to be punished. Here are five possibilities:

1. Expulsion and ban

This is the easiest method. Game tickets are contracts that provide revocable licenses to enter private property for a game. Stadium operators can revoke those licenses if the ticket holder violates the contract’s terms, such as by engaging in unruly behavior. Once a license to be in the stadium has been revoked, the ticket holder becomes a trespasser and must leave the premises or face the prospect of criminal arrest. Disruptive ticket holders who have consumed too much alcohol are often ejected along these lines.

The drawback to expulsion as the only form of punishment is the one identified by Jones: It might not adequately deter unruly fans. Some fans, particularly those who are inebriated, might not find the prospect of being escorted out of a game all that dissuading. This seems especially true toward the end of a game in which the home team is losing—the fan might have left early anyway.

Teams can enhance the deterrence of a one-game expulsion by indefinitely or permanently banning unruly fans from the facility. Such bans are rare, but have been issued. Earlier this year, the New York Knicks indefinitely banned Charles Oakley from Madison Square Garden after his altercation with arena security and subsequent arrest. A few years ago, the NBA permanently banned Donald Sterling from attending any NBA games—even those of the Los Angeles Clippers, which at the time he still owned—because of his racially insensitive remarks. Similarly, Detroit Pistons season ticket holder John Green was permanently banned from attending Pistons home games because of his role in the 2004 “Malice at the Palace.” Perhaps the Red Sox will ban the fan who tried to injure Jones.

Teams can enhance the deterrence of a one-game expulsion by indefinitely or permanently banning unruly fans from the facility. Such bans are rare, but they have been issued. Earlier this year, the New York Knicks indefinitely banned former player Charles Oakley from Madison Square Garden after his altercation with arena security and subsequent arrest. A few years ago, the NBA permanently banned Donald Sterling from attending any NBA games—even those of the Los Angeles Clippers, which at the time he still owned—because of his racially insensitive remarks. Similarly, Detroit Pistons season ticket holder John Green was permanently banned from attending Pistons home games because of his role in the 2004 “Malice at the Palace.” Perhaps the Red Sox will ban the fan who tried to injure Jones.

MLB
Adam Jones's treatment by Red Sox fans dredges up a deep-seated problem for MLB

2. Potential criminal charges

Stadiums can share available video and witness statements with law enforcement and encourage that an unruly fan be arrested. Although the fan who threw the bag at Jones has not yet been charged with a crime, he could eventually be charged with disorderly conduct. Such a crime refers to disruptive behavior that alarms and provokes others. In Massachusetts, disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor offense and is normally not punished by any jail time. Still, it would be a meaningful punishment. Having a criminal record, even for a relatively minor offense, can be life disrupting, particularly when applying for jobs. When disruptive fans at sporting events are charged with crimes, normally it is for disorderly conduct or the similar charge of disturbing the peace.

A fan who throws an object at a player could also face more serious criminal charges. He could be charged with assault or even assault with a dangerous weapon on grounds that he attempted to use physical force against a player. A peanut bag is obviously not a dangerous weapon when used for its intended purposes, but that is not the test for purposes of assault. The test is whether the peanut bag became a dangerous weapon when thrown at Jones. In Massachusetts, a conviction on assault with a dangerous weapon could lead to a prison sentence of up to five years, though normally the length of any incarceration is much less.

3. Assessing Jones’s idea of severely fining fans

Jones’s proposed punishment—a fine of perhaps $30,000—is intriguing but would require either a new type of game ticket or a new law. As noted above, game tickets are contracts where the fan pays for a revocable license. Fans who have already purchased tickets have agreed to a specific set of terms that can’t be unilaterally altered post hoc. For future ticket purchases, however, contractual terms could be altered to include language for a fine. Whether fans would be uncomfortable with such language is unclear. A fan might wonder how an investment of $50 or $100 in a seat could lead to a fine worth thousands of dollars. That said, the vast majority of fans probably would be okay with a fine since they don’t throw objects onto the field and they likely regard abhor such conduct. Alternatively, a state could pass a law that permits the government to issue substantial fines for unruly conduct at sporting events. Such a process would not be instant, however, and would require legislative hearings and debate.

MLB
Hunter Greene is the star baseball needs. First he has to finish high school.

4. Jones could file a lawsuit

Lastly, Jones could file a lawsuit against the fan and, though much less likely, against the Red Sox too. If the throwing of the bag caused Jones to suffer reasonable apprehension of an immediate harmful or offensive contact, he could sue the fan for assault. If he didn’t see the bag coming at him or if it landed nowhere near him, he could instead sue the fan for intentional infliction of emotional distress on grounds the fan acted in an extreme and outrageous way. Jones could also claim the Red Sox were negligent in not preventing the fan from throwing at him, though if the Red Sox complied with industry standard security techniques, a lawsuit against the team would almost certainly fail. Along those liens, teams can’t provide 100% player safety when all it takes is one person among tens of thousands in attendance to do something stupid with a seemingly harmless object like a bag of peanuts.

Any lawsuit would likely be more symbolic than anything else. Although clearly aggravated and perhaps even distressed by his experience, Jones appears to be fine, so potential damages would be minimal. Also, the fan might not have the financial wherewithal to pay off a significant civil judgment. But Jones—who according to Baseball-Reference has earned $78.2 million in his career—wouldn’t be suing in hopes of obtaining a big payday. He would sue to make a point.

5. Cutting off alcohol and more ballpark security

Teams and stadium operators can take steps to decrease the likelihood of fans throwing objects. Cutting off the sale of alcohol earlier in games is one method and more security monitoring of fans is another. Stadiums, including Fenway Park, have also adopted alcohol free seating areas. These areas are for mainly for families that don’t want to experience drunk people ruining their good time, but expanding those areas could also increase player safety.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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