CPS plans crackdown on player violence

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The Independent Football

Footballers and other sportsmen will be more likely to face criminal prosecution for violent or threatening on-field behaviour from this autumn, when the Crown Prosecution Service intends to issue new guidelines to police about which offences to target and how best to secure convictions.

Footballers and other sportsmen will be more likely to face criminal prosecution for violent or threatening on-field behaviour from this autumn, when the Crown Prosecution Service intends to issue new guidelines to police about which offences to target and how best to secure convictions.

The clampdown will particularly target physical violence, including deliberate attempts to injure other players, although it is possible that prosecutions could also arise for spitting, swearing or racist language.

"The guidelines, which we hope to have in place later this year, are not about prosecuting people who simply behave badly, because that should rightly remain within the jurisdiction of governing bodies," Paul Hayward, a CPS spokesman, said. "They're about targeting people who behave criminally, and who, as things stand, get away with it because they do it on the field of play.

"We don't want a situation where sportsmen are getting away with something on the pitch that they would be prosecuted for if it happened in the high street. Our aim, and I believe the public are behind us, is to bring an end to that anomaly."

Although there have been some prominent cases of footballers being convicted in court for on-field offences, they have been relatively rare.

Duncan Ferguson served 44 days of a three-month sentence in Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison in 1995, after being found guilty, while a Rangers player, of headbutting Raith Rovers' John McStay during a match in 1994.

Manchester United's Eric Cantona was sentenced to two weeks in prison in 1995 for kung-fu kicking an abusive Crystal Palace supporter during a game, although the sentence was reduced to community service on appeal.

El Hadj Diouf, then with Liverpool, was fined £5,000 by Glasgow Sheriff Court in 2003 after being found guilty of assault - by spitting - on a Celtic fan during a Uefa Cup match.

And the CPS confirmed yesterday that there are "several" investigations under way involving footballers who might yet be charged with criminal offences as a result of incidents on the pitch.

No details were provided, but the cases include the brawl in which Lee Bowyer punched his team-mate Kieron Dyer during Newcastle's match against Aston Villa on 2 April.

The Bowyer-Dyer investigation has highlighted some of the problems facing police and the CPS in such situations. For a variety of legal reasons, Northumbria Police needed to establish whether St James' Park was a public place (yes); whether they required an official complaint from anyone, either participant or witness, before taking action (no); and whether there was a good enough probability of conviction for assault to warrant the time and money involved in pressing a charge (undecided).

The guidelines will seek to make such decisions not only easier but standard across the country and across all sports, amateur or professional.

"As things stand, you are probably more likely to be face prosecution for an incident in a Sunday league game than an identical incident in a professional match," Hayward said. "We'd argue that that cannot be right, and the guidelines will seek to clarify matters on a range of issues, from what might constitute threatening language, especially if there's a racial element, to whether there might be a case for intentionally trying to cripple someone."

The CPS will formulate its guidelines after talks with various sporting and legal bodies, many of which convened yesterday to debate the issues at a CPS "Crime in Sport" conference in London.

"For many, sport is a means of getting rid of their aggression and we would never think about 'Disneyfying' it, but there is now growing concern about where the boundaries lie between what's sporting and what's criminal activity," said Nazir Afzal, a CPS director.

It is unlikely that any governing bodies will speak out against the CPS until the guidelines are published, although sporting authorities prefer to deal with their own on-field disciplinary matters.

Only last month, the British and Irish Lions flanker Neil Back was handed a four-week ban by the Rugby Football Union after intentionally punching his England team-mate Joe Worsley during the Zurich Premiership final. Worsley needed 13 stitches but there was no suggestion of criminal proceedings. The new guidelines could change that in future.

Falling foul of the law



  • Chris Kamara became the first professional footballer to be fined by a court for an on-pitch assault in February 1988. Kamara, who broke the cheekbone of Shrewsbury Town's Jim Melrose, was fined £1,200.


  • Eric Cantona was sentenced to two weeks in prison in 1995, which on appeal was reduced to a community service order, after aiming a kung-fu kick at a spectator during Manchester United's game at Crystal Palace.


  • Duncan Ferguson served 44 days of a three-month jail sentence in 1995. He was found guilty, while a Rangers player, of head-butting Raith Rovers' John McStay during a match.


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