Can a sportsman or woman use ‘reasonable force’ to defend themselves if they are attacked by a pitch invader?
It’s a hornet’s nest of a question, but as the English football season reaches its conclusion – and the likelihood of pitch invasions increases – there are still grey areas as to what a player can and can’t do if accosted by an interloper.
And the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) wants answers before a situation unfolds that everybody regrets.
A number of players and managers, including former Crystal Palace boss Patrick Vieira and Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp, were involved in physical altercations at the end of the 2021/22 campaign, while another Blades striker – Oli McBurnie – was acquitted in court of an assault charge against a Nottingham Forest supporter amid another invasion.
And already at the business end of the 2022/23 season, Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe has been shoved by a trespasser, while the play-off semi-final between Sunderland and Luton Town was marred by pitch invasions.
The days of jovial pitch invasions as an outpouring of celebration – or a chance for streakers to lose some layers – are long gone, and the PFA is seeking clarification on what their players can and can’t do if a pitch invader – who has technically already broken the law – approaches them in a threatening manner.
“We have been very clear with the authorities that too many of these incidents are still happening, with players left to look after themselves and stewards and security often too slow to respond,” the PFA wrote in a message to the players.
Stewards are protected by law to physically restrain pitch invaders, but it’s generally true that there are too few stewards in each section of the stadium – allowing fans to enter the pitch uncontested.
Can a Footballer Defend Themselves Against a Pitch Invader?
It’s a curiosity that there aren’t any specific rules or guidelines detailing what a player can and can’t do if they are confronted by a pitch invader.
It’s generally felt that the normal UK law of self-defence applies in these cases. That states that you can use ‘reasonable force’ to protect yourself if facing a clear and obvious threat, although there is no specific definition of what reasonable force entails – a dangerous grey area should a player fight back against a pitch invader.
However, the law also confirms that it is a crime to ‘carry on attacking the intruder even if you’re no longer in danger’, and it’s at that point that a player will likely be punished if their self-defence crosses over into something more sinister.
The chief constable of Cheshire Police, Mark Roberts, has said that players that go too far will be punished by the CPS:
“Much as we need to protect players from (pitch invasions) – and the answer to this is for people not to go on the pitch in the first place – equally if there are complaints that players have misbehaved, then they’re subject to the law just as much as everyone else is.”