Sports Arena

The Higher Standard

A hockey puck of an owner earns a major sticking penalty.

By 1.29.04

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Given the price of tickets to professional sporting events, it should come as no surprise, in fact no news, that an owner is accused of assaulting a fan. It is a common occurrence at the box office. But this was a real assault, physical contact. And the news is that the National Hockey League and the owner involved proclaim that fining the owner and banning him from his team's games for a week is somehow stark and unusual and therefor to be lauded as setting a higher standard than we commoners are required to meet.

The case in brief. Ted Leonsis, principal owner of the Washington Capitals Hockey team, was heckled by a 20-year-old fan at a game in Washington, D.C., Sunday night. The fan held up a sign across the ice from Leonsis that read "Caps Hockey; AOL Stock -- See a Pattern?" Leonsis's fortune stems largely from his AOL holdings. The Caps, the diminutive for the Capitals, are scraping bottom in the League standings. AOL is not faring too well, either. The young fan also admits to yelling taunts directed at Leonsis.

After the game, a 4-1 Caps loss, Leonsis attacked the taunting youth identified as Jason Hammer, a college student. Accounts vary as to the type of assault, but agree there was a laying on of hands. Hammer does not allege serious injury, downplays the incident, got an apologetic call from Leonsis the next day along with an invitation to join the owner in his box next game. Invite accepted. Game over? Not quite.

NHL Security investigated the confrontation and the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman issued a statement in which he fined Leonsis $100,000 and banned him from attending his team's events for a week. All well and good. But in explaining the discipline, Bettman says, "we hold all members of the NHL family to a higher standard than the general public." Leonsis goes along with his elevated status, saying in his acceptance-of-penalty statement, "I...understand that regardless of the circumstances, I must be held to a higher standard than the general public."

Lawyers (Hammer says his father is one) must shudder at this. No one in the "general public" is held to a lesser standard. No one may seize upon verbal provocation as an excuse for assault. The common law principal has been embedded in a nursery rhyme. "Sticks and stones may break my bones ..." In short, had such a fray occurred in the street, a bar, or at a baseball game, one of the participants would have been subject to arrest -- the one who responded to verbal abuse with physical action.

Admittedly, enforcing physical restraint at a hockey game may seem to many as reaching for a higher standard, but such aggrandizement is simply unwarranted. A hundred grand fine seems like a lot of money, but we are talking big money here. The Hammers reportedly buy four seats to all the Capitals home games. At 85 bucks a ticket, that is $13,940 dollars a year!

Young Hammer says he isn't hurt, has no intention of a lawsuit, wants to put this incident behind him, and will accept the Leonsis invitation to join him in the owner's box, when the owner is allowed to return. There is a higher standard in this story.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.