The Hunger Games and Dangerous Sports II

Two weeks ago, we looked at the legality of a “sporting” event like the one depicted in The Hunger Games. There, we were mostly concerned with the legality of organizing or participating in the Games, recognizing that the Games are obviously legal in Panem but manifestly illegal should someone try to conduct a similar event in real life.

This time, we’re going to look at another angle: potential culpability for spectators and sponsors.

I. Spectator Liability

The basic question here is whether the spectators and other persons not participating in the Games may nonetheless bear some criminal culpability for their activities connected to it. It’s pretty clear that the organizers would be liable, but what about people just watching?

The answer is probably not. While there’s certainly a moral problem with watching bloodsport—as Gale points out, there probably wouldn’t be any Games if no one watched—it turns out there isn’t actually much of a legal one, even in the real world. Many states simply don’t criminalize that kind of behavior. For example, New York, which has a fairly extensive statute criminalizing unlicensed boxing and combative sports of all types, specifically excludes spectators from liability. You need to be a bit more involved than that to trigger criminal sanctions.

Of course, betting on the Games implicates the states’ regulation of gambling, and that would almost certainly be illegal. It clearly isn’t in Panem, but in the current legal environment, the states crack down pretty hard on unlicensed gambling. Moral and public order issues aside, the state wants to tax that sort of activity, and doing it under the table is a huge way to avoid taxes.

But other than gambling, the act of watching an illegal sport does not, in itself, tend to come with criminal sanctions.

II. Sponsor Liability

But sponsors are different. Here, there may be liability, depending on how the statute is written. For example, Indiana’s statute criminalizes the “promotion or organization” of unlicensed combative games (Ind. Code. 35-45-18-3), but the sponsor activities as depicted in the books and movie don’t seem to rise to that level. The Games will go on with or without the sponsors. But New York’s statute, linked above, goes so far as to criminalize any “conduct which materially aids any combative sport.” This is much more broadly defined:

Such conduct includes but is not limited to conduct directed toward the creation, establishment or performance of a combative sport, toward the acquisition or maintenance of premises, paraphernalia, equipment or apparatus therefor, toward the solicitation or inducement of persons to attend or participate therein, toward the actual conduct of the performance thereof, toward the arrangement of any of its financial or promotional phases, or toward any other phase of a combative sport.

Sending gifts to Tributes would certainly seem to be conduct “directed toward . . . the acquisition . . . of equipment or apparatus therefor” and “toward the actual conduct of the performance thereof.” So the New York statute would criminalize sponsor-type participation in the Games, but Indiana’s statute would not. It thus becomes a matter of state law, and as one can see, this varies from state to state.

III. Conclusion

So, for all of you planning to watch illegal bloodsports in abandoned warehouses or wilderness areas, take note: not only is the organization of and direct participation in such games probably illegal, but some states make even tangential participation like modest aid to the competitors illegal too. Watching, without betting or participating in any other way may be okay—though we imagine that a prosecutor would probably be able to rope you in on conspiracy or other charges—but the whole thing is on shaky enough legal ground that it doesn’t seem likely that anything like the Hunger Games could exist without drastic changes in society and the law.

7 responses to “The Hunger Games and Dangerous Sports II

  1. I’d question whether the “sponsors” in the Hunger Games are really as hands off as sponsors in real life. I think you could make an argument that they’re actually participants. It’s implied* that they have choice as to what their money sends in–they’re not making a simple monetary gift to a specific person to buy equipment prior to the start, (like, say, racing IRL) nor are they helping to set up the Arena and keep it running. They’re making decisions during the game that will affect the outcome. If a sponsor sees an unarmed Tribute they like stalking somebody and sends in a knife** I’d say they’ve now had as much to do with what happens next as the formal organizers.

    * SPOILER for the book: After Rue is killed, and Katniss avenges her, District 11 sponsors a gift of bread characteristic of their district to Katniss. My reading was that the sponsors chose the bread, but I allow that it was written ambiguously enough that the sponsors could have just made a sponsorship of Katniss in general, and the bread was chosen by Haymitch to goad her into thanking District 11 on television and starting buzz for further sponsorships.

    ** They probably couldn’t actually send a weapon in under the book’s rules, since gifts are so expensive–it’s stated that buying the cheap bread from the previous footnote took donations from all of District 11.

    • I hear what you’re saying, and sponsors would definitely be subject to criminal liability in some states as discussed above, but I don’t think the argument that they’re “participants” has legs. They’re certainly interested in the outcome, but they won’t actually be the winners or losers, regardless of their involvement. Again, under the drafting of the New York statute, they’d certainly be just as liable as the organizers, but they still aren’t participants.

      Also, the way the Indiana statute is drafted, neither “promoting” nor “organizing” are defined terms, so they would be given their plain meaning, and I think that unless a sponsor actually had something to do with the actual planning or advertising of the games, they wouldn’t count.

      It really depends on how the statute is written.

  2. There have been a few movies and books where the number of spectators watching have triggered the killer to kill, or have lead to the death (eg Untraceable).
    How much of a case could be made against spectators with the point of ‘if they didn’t watch, there wouldn’t be illegal game to watch’? (Or is that the conspiracy angle you mention?)

  3. Does it matter what kind of “aid” you provide? In the book, most of the gifts were more like “humanitarian aid”.
    If the participant has a life-threatening injury (say, they got an artery cut open) and a doctor in the audience who had no intention of providing aid to the game comes forward to stop the bleeding and save the person’s life, would that be considered aid if the fighter then gets back into the ring? Or if they provide such aid after the match is over, but the fighter has another match scheduled later that day?

    • It doesn’t just depend on the type of aid, it also depends on why the aid was given. For example, medical aid could be rendered purely for humanitarian reasons. Or it could be “toward the solicitation or inducement of persons to attend or participate therein [or] toward the actual conduct of the performance thereof” (i.e., keeping an injured fighter in the game). The former might not run afoul of the law, but the latter probably would.

  4. Another question – these laws are all state laws, correct? So if a state wanted to legalize such activity would there be any legal problems with doing so?
    In an earlier article you pointed out that it is illegal to leave the country to participate in such a bloodsport in another country. Would that really be enforceable? How would that be any different than going to a country where drugs or prostitution are legal (with the intent to participate in such activity)? Or, for that matter, going to another state to get some “medical” marijuana?

    • In an earlier article you pointed out that it is illegal to leave the country to participate in such a bloodsport in another country.

      More properly, it can be illegal. For example, a state can exert criminal jurisdiction over a crime planned in that state and executed in another state, or even in another country.

      Would that really be enforceable?

      Legally? Sure. Practically speaking? It depends on a lot of things.

      How would that be any different than going to a country where drugs or prostitution are legal (with the intent to participate in such activity)? Or, for that matter, going to another state to get some “medical” marijuana?

      As I explained previously, it all depends on how both the jurisdictional statute and the specific criminal statute are worded.

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