By Joshua Winneker, Associate Professor, Misericordia University
What was once supposed to be a sign of sportsmanship at all levels of sports has reached its violent crescendo during the women’s NIT basketball game, University of Memphis versus Bowling Green State University. During the handshake line following Bowling Green’s victory, Memphis player Jamirah Shutes punched Bowling Green’s Elissa Brett in the face, which knocked Brett to the floor and caused her injury. Apparently, the two had exchanged elbows during the game and the aggression escalated in the handshake line. Unfortunately, altercations in handshake lines are not a new concept, but what makes this incident unique is that Bowling Green Campus Police subsequently criminally charged Shutes with assault.
I have previously written about the dangers of continuing the practice of handshake lines in a research paper entitled Shake it off: Potential Civil Liability of Handshake Lines. The custom occurs immediately following the games when players are still heated, emotional, and full of adrenaline. In that article, I discussed several notable handshake line incidents including one between a coach and a player after a University of Florida versus Auburn University softball game and another between two players after an Iona University versus Monmouth University men’s basketball game, along with numerous other collegiate, professional, and amateur game handshake incidents. The article detailed the potential for a variety of different torts that could arise from a handshake fight.
Following the article, another high-profile scuffle occurred in a handshake line. In 2022, University of Michigan men’s basketball coach, Juwan Howard, slapped an assistant coach from the University of Wisconsin in the head. Howard was still upset from a late-game timeout called by Wisconsin who already had a commanding lead at the time. The emotions then carried over into the handshake line resulting in not only Howard getting physical but several players on both sides joining in the fight. While Howard’s slap did not result in criminal charges, both Howard’s and Shutes’ actions have opened up themselves up to potential civil liability as well.
Howard and Shutes could be sued for the intentional torts of assault and battery. In the civil context, these are torts that differ in their designation from their criminal counterparts. Assault occurs when a person is placed in fear of immediate bodily contact, while battery is the harmful or offensive bodily contact itself. The videos of both the Howard and Shutes’ encounters provide visual evidence of both assault and battery.
It would not be surprising, then, if Brett does file a lawsuit against Shutes. Given that the burden of proof is higher in criminal cases than in civil cases, it would be logical strategically for Brett to wait until the criminal proceedings have ended to file her lawsuit, assuming she files within the state’s statute of limitations.
For Howard, he actually not only avoided criminal charges but civil litigation as well. His only punishment was a suspension and a fine. However, given that Howard is employed by the University of Michigan and he committed these torts while under his course of employment, University of Michigan could have been sued as well under the theory respondent superior, or “vicarious liability,” which imputes liability to employers for the torts (including intentional torts) committed by their employees while at work.
With the pending criminal action from the Shutes/Brett episode, along with the possibility of civil litigation in that matter as well as future legal issues for other potential handshake line disputes, it appears to be time to end this tradition. Instead, allow the players and coaches to cool off and avoid the forced face-to-face hand shakings with their heated adversaries directly after the game. Players and coaches are expected to give 100% during the game and then are required to handle themselves perfectly following the game. It is not an excuse for any post-game altercation, but it makes more sense to simply avoid the potentially volatile situation altogether—it certainly could wind up hurting (and costing) less.
Mike Chiari, Report: Jamirah Shutes Charged After Punching Elissa Brett on Video at WNIT Game, Bleacher Report (Mar. 24, 2023), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10069940-report-jamirah-shutes-charged-after-punching-elissa-brett-on-video-at-wnit-game.
Joshua D. Winneker et. al., Shake it off: Potential Civil Liability of Handshake Lines, 24 Widener L. Rev. 131 (2018).
Olafimihan Oshin, Michigan’s Juwan Howard Suspended, Fined After Slapping Wisconsin Coach, The Hill (Feb. 22, 2022), https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/595295-michigans-juwan-howard-suspended-fined-after-slapping-wisconsin-coach/.
This article is reprinted with permission of University of Denver Sports & Entertainment Law Journal.