Even a laser beam to the face can’t stop Tom Brady. But pointing a laser at him could lead to criminal charges and a permanent ban from an NFL stadium. It could also lead the NFL to rethink stadium security policies and how those policies connect to the integrity of the game.
The NFL is investigating a suspicious green beam that repeatedly appeared on Brady’s uniform, helmet and skin during the AFC Championship on Sunday. As KMBC's William Joy shows through images posted on Twitter, the beam nears Brady’s face several times, including during crucial moments of the game. One such occasion arose when Kansas City Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen intercepted a pass thrown by Brady. Imagery shared by KCTV’s David Harris also reveals that the beam reached the helmet of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Nnadi and possibly other Chiefs and New England Patriots players who were positioned near Brady.
Joy reports that he spoke with representatives of the NFL, Patriots and Chiefs after the game. Each told him that they hadn’t noticed the beam or heard complaints about it. Brady’s play also didn’t appear to suffer. The 41-year-old threw for 348 yards and led his team to a thrilling 37-31 overtime victory. The Patriots will face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.
Regardless of whether the laser pointer impacted the AFC Championship, the fact that it repeatedly near a player’s face presents a safety risk. It is a risk that both the NFL and NFLPA will explore. Further, to the extent a fan’s laser pointer is used to obstruct the vision of the opposing team’s quarterback, the NFL must investigate whether it could give the home team an unfair advantage and what, if anything, should be done as a result.
5 Key Takeaways from “LaserGate:” Ensuring Player Safety and the Integrity of Games
First, laser pointers can severely damage a person’s vision and such damage can occur almost instantly. The Mayo Clinic notes that “laser pointers, especially those with short wave lengths such as green laser pointers, can permanently damage the retina and cause visual loss with exposures as short as a few seconds.” Whether a laser pointer impairs a quarterback’s ability to accurately throw a football is a secondary concern to whether the pointer might temporarily, or even permanently, blind the quarterback. The fact that certain types of green-beam laser pointers are flagged by the Mayo Clinic as particularly harmful should concern the NFL: the beam on Brady was green.
Second, the power, accessibility and movability of laser pointers make them difficult for stadiums to police. Laser points can have long ranges that would allow a person seated anywhere in a stadium to beam a player. In fact, basic laser pointers typically beam for over a half of a mile. Many of these devices are also inexpensive, with some costing under $20. Many also fit within the palm of one’s hand and are very light, meaning they are easy to conceal and transport. In other words, if someone wanted to enter an NFL stadium and direct a beam onto player’s face, it probably wouldn’t take much effort or expense to do so.
Third, NFL stadiums have code of conduct policies that are compromised when someone disrupts a player’s vision through a laser pointer. Arrowhead Stadium, for instance, instructs that ticket holders are forbidden from any behavior that is “unruly” or “disruptive.” Likewise, ticket holders are prohibited from impeding the progress of the game. Similarly, they are barred from engaging in conduct that endangers the safety of others. Any attempt to distract the opposing team’s quarterback through a laser pointer would clearly violate Arrowhead’s code of conduct.
A code of conduct violation could trigger a permanent ban from Arrowhead Stadium. A game ticket is a contract that, in exchange for a price, provides the ticket holder with a limited and revocable license to enter the stadium in order to watch a game. In the absence of possessing a license, a spectator would be classified as a trespasser and could be arrested. A team could decide to never again offer a license to a person who violates the stadium’s code of conduct.
Enforceability of such a ban would be a challenge. While facial recognition software and credit card watchlists would facilitate enforcement, Arrowhead Stadium seats over 76,000 people and has limited capacity to monitor each person who enters. A banned person could pay for a ticket with cash or have someone else buy it for him or her. Also, the banned person will obviously age over time. As his or her appearance changes, it would become even more difficult to administer a ban that is dependent on visual identification.
Fourth, use of a laser pointer can constitute a criminal act. For instance, it is a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft while it is in flight. A number of states and cities also outlaw use of laser pointers when they interfere with law enforcement, ambulatory services or motorists. Likewise, some jurisdictions have banned harassment by laser pointers. While neither Missouri nor Kansas City has a specific law on use of a laser pointer as a tool of harassment, an attempt to impair the vision of another person could count as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace or, if an injury had occurred, battery. To that point, if the person(s) who directed a laser pointer at Brady in Arrowhead Stadium is identified through the NFL’s investigation (or through any investigation conducted by local law enforcement), there’s a good chance that person would be charged with a crime.
Fifth, the laser attack on Brady is not an isolated incident for the NFL. In 2016, Brock Osweiler complained about a spectator distracting him with a laser during a game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders. A couple of years earlier, the Detroit Lions identified and then permanently banned a fan from Ford Field after the fan had used a laser pointer to distract Buffalo Bills players during a game against the Lions. Given the affordability and prevalence of laser pointers, the league and NFLPA should consider their accompanying safety risk a topic for further analysis.
The league should also be motivated by competitiveness concerns. Stated bluntly, fans who try to blind opposing teams’ players could endanger the integrity of games and frustrate the NFL’s oft-mentioned focus on fair play. Consider the importance of competitiveness within official league documents. The Official Playing Rules of the NFL, for instance, detail the commissioner’s desire to avoid “competitive inequities” in policies governing how games are played. For its part, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA discusses how microphones affixed to players should not create a “competitive disadvantage” for the player or his team. The NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws also supply relevant language. They impose very specific rules about use of communications and information-gathering equipment in order to ensure those devices do not unfairly aid a team during the playing of a game. They also prescribe rules for use of electronic magnifiers and loud speaker systems.
The larger point: The NFL repeatedly pledges to ensure that the presentation and design of games do not cause unfair advantage or unfair disadvantage. With that same spirit in mind, the league could inform teams that they must more aggressively monitor use of laser technology by spectators. A failure to do so could trigger punishments of fines or losses of draft picks.
Any such policy along those lines would need to be voted on by owners, at least some of whom would caution that policing tens of thousands of spectators is logistically challenging. Owners would also stress that there are privacy concerns with closely monitoring spectators. Still, if a player is injured by a laser pointer or if a game is clearly impacted by the use of one, the league might regret not addressing the issue more sternly. Just look at the fallout of a referee’s failure to call pass interference in a conference championship game.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.