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.
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.