In a Violent Game, What Is Too Violent?

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It seems like a no-brainer: Police in Vancouver are charging a man for assaulting a colleague with a stick — an attack that rendered the victim unconscious. In this case, though, the circumstances are interestingly skewed: The attacker, National Hockey League defenseman Marty McSorley, works in a profession where violence is part of the performance — and is even promoted as an enticement to customers. Why should he be prosecuted when thousands of similar on-ice incidents — brawls that would have the man in the street locked up in an instant — are ignored?

In the case of the McSorley, who used his stick to violently hack down Canucks player Donald Brashear at the end of a game in February, Canadian authorities appear to have decided that he stepped over an ill-defined line. "In some sports contexts there is an element of consent to being at risk of physical harm," notes TIME legal analyst Adam Cohen. "So, for example, in boxing, people agree to have others punch them in the face. The question is what are you consenting to in any given situation. In hockey it's not really a game about beating up your opponent. On the other hand, though, professional hockey is aware that there is a lot of violence that goes on on the ice. Then the question becomes when has somebody gone too far."

But just what is too far in the context of hockey — a sport in which many fans feel cheated when they pay to see a game and no fights break out? The case represents only the fourth time charges have been brought against an NHL player for an on-ice incident. Only one, the most recent, resulted in a conviction — Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli had to spend a night in jail in 1988 for sticking a player. McSorley, who will stand trail April 4, faces up to 18 months in jail if convicted, in addition to the record 23-game NHL suspension he is now serving. "We do allow a certain level of violence in sports," says Cohen. "But the fact that the courts have been involved could prompt the NHL to be clearer about what violence it does and does not accept."