RECENTLY ONE Dennis Polonich recovered in a Michigan court the sum of $850,000 in a lawsuit he brought against one Wilfrid Paiement in compensation for injuries he received at Mr. Paiement's hands. Or, rather, Mr. Paiement's hockey stick. The injuries were received in the course of a hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Rockies of the National Hockey League. This is not the largest amount one professional athlete has won in a lawsuit against another: Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets got a $3.2 million judgment against the Los Angeles Lakers, a National Basketball Association team, for serious injuries suffered in an altercation with the Lakers' Kermit Washington.
Not all professional athletes who receive injuries sue, of course; the vast majority do not. In fact, one could argue that the risk of injury is a chance they take when they agree voluntarily -- and in return for generous compensation -- to employment as professional athletes. Laissez faire, the argument would run: let the leagues police themselves with whatever penalties they think appropriate. If the fans feel revulsion for the level of violence, they can always respond by refusing to buy tickets or to watch games on television. Besides, one might add, there is a clear possibility of abuse here. You don't have to be a smart attorney to know that any player would be wise to file suit in his team's home town, where the opposing player or team is likely to be highly unpopular; home-town juries could return unjustifiably high judgments.
We think these arguments overlook a couple of important considerations. The first is that some of these players are committing acts that, in any other circumstances, we would all agree are wrong. Why should the fact that they are performed on a hockey rink or a basketball court make any difference? Professional sports are just another form of entertainment, and we would not tolerate genuine injuries being inflicted as part of a television program or symphony performance. Every professional sport, even those whose rules contemplate plenty of body contact, prohibits intentional infliction of injury. How can we say that a player has agreed to risk such injury when the rules prohibit it?
The other reason we reject the let-boys-be-boys argument is the role of sports in our society, and particularly in setting an example for children. Of all our forms of entertainment, professional sports probably have the most fascination for children below the teen years. Players are admired, and their conduct, on and off the playing area, imitated. Lawsuits that penalize conduct like Mr. Paiement's provide an even greater disincentive than league rules can to conduct we would not like to see children admire. If those who run professional sports leagues feel that such lawsuits will drain their resources, they have a ready alternative: stricter enforcement of their current rules and enactment of new rules that will make injuries less common.