Does the legal defence ‘assumption of risk’ hold in the case of a spectator being insulted on the field of play by a player or vice versa? We will know soon enough. A spectator at Wimbledon who was cheering the Australian finalist Nick Kyrgios was accused by the player of being drunk (“looks like she’s had 700 drinks,” Kyrgios told the umpire) and of distracting him during the match.
“He [Kyrgios] always says the crowd is against him and I wanted to show we were for him, I wanted to encourage him. I only had one Pimm’s and one rosé,” explained the lady who was watching the game with her mother and received unwelcome media attention thanks to the incident.
In general, a sportsman cannot sue a rival for tackling in football or being hit on the body by a fast bowler while batting because he understands the risks involved in playing a sport, and does so voluntarily. This extends to injuries to spectators as a result of a cricket ball hit by a player striking him in the stands, or a racquet thrown in celebration by a winning player catching him in an awkward place (there might be an argument for suing in the latter case, I would have thought. No one goes to a tennis match thinking he might be struck by a flying racquet).
The question is: can a player sue a spectator for foul language, bad behaviour or sexual innuendo? Spectators’ comments often travel the distance across a stadium, and when they insult a player in frustration or call his parentage into question, does the ‘assumption of risk’ cover it?
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Players have things thrown at them which is obviously not part of the game, they are taunted racially, as happened to some Indian cricketers fielding near the boundary in Australia, and although sometimes the spectator is ejected from the stadium, and in the case of racial abuse arrested, the question of suing never arises.
Can a batsman sue a spectator for initiating the slow handclap or claim he is distracted by the colourful outfit of a spectator? I remember Mohammad Azharuddin was once startled by the Mexican wave in England and lost his wicket. But there was no talk of suing anybody.
Just as players have a code of conduct, spectators too have one that is often listed on their tickets or in the stadiums. In some cities, football fans are banned from the stadium — as happened in Bristol earlier this year when about half a dozen of them were handed bans from three to five years for poor behaviour — but in general, spectators get away with far more than players do (even if they bite an opponent, as Luis Suarez did during a World Cup football match).
What is interesting in the Kyrgios case is that the person he claims distracted him is the one suing — and for his saying something in public that might have led to similar action outside of the sports field too.