NFL Training Camp Fights: Rules and Confusion

Updated: Aug 11

BY: JOHN AZZATO


One NFL tradition that fans know and love: Training camp fights. There seems to be an uptick in training camp fights in 2021, more specifically during joint practices, and it’s time to explore what could happen in the aftermath.


Joint Practice Overview

Usually, teams will have joint practices during training camp in order to ascertain how their players fare against another team. Two teams will usually schedule a joint practice at one of their training camp locations. Then, each team has a separate practice, and both teams will scrimmage. This provides a multitude of benefits for each team. These benefits include fringe roster players getting game-like action, coaches evaluating players and scheme in a game-like situation, as well as players finally hitting players on another team.


However, joint practices clearly have some pitfalls. For one, injuries are always a risk when contact is permitted. There is no bigger blow to a team’s morale than losing an important player in a scrimmage that doesn’t count. One other pitfall to joint practices is fighting.


Joint practices usually are scheduled when the season is just weeks from commencing. Players are excited, as they are finally going against players on another team, and tensions begin to rise. Sure, the fans love to see two players on different teams go at it. It has even become a sort of summer tradition for fans of the National Football League.


NFL Rules

Operations.nfl.com showcases a page titled: “Accountability: Fines and Appeals”. On this page, a chart appears listing un-permitted conduct, with fines attached to a first and second offense respectively. For fighting, a player faces a $36,148 fine for their first offense, and a $72,299 fine for their second offense.

The rulebook also includes a section explaining the purpose of these rules: “The rules are intended to protect players from unnecessary risk, promote player safety and emphasize sportsmanship”.[1]


However, these rules don’t seem to apply to training camp fights. For example, Cornerback Troy Hill of the Cleveland Browns and Wide Receiver Sterling Shephard of the New York Giants fought during a joint practice on August 20th, 2021. Yet, no fines or punishment from the NFL has been allocated.


Consequences?

Could a player injured during a joint practice fight bring a civil lawsuit against a player/team for that conduct?


This is a comparable scenario to the one provided in Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals.[2] Dale Hackbart of the Denver Broncos was hit in the back of the head and neck by Boobie Clark of the Cincinnati Bengals.[3] After his team secured an interception, Hackbart tried to block Clark and fell to a knee.[4] Clark then struck Hackbart with his right forearm in the back of the head and neck. [5]However, the strike was not a part of the play, but an intentional strike out of anger.[6] The trial court found that this strike was not actionable, as it had taken place during a football game which is an activity of “special warfare”.[7] However, the Tenth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled that tort concepts could apply to football scenarios like this one despite the violent nature of the game. [8]


However, one question is left unanswered...


If these rules are in place to protect the players from unnecessary risk, why aren’t they being enforced in training camp and joint practices?



Sources: [1]Accountability: Fines & Appeals | NFL Football Operations [2] Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979). [3] Id. at 519. [4] Id. at 519. [5] Id. at 519. [6] Id. at 519. [7] Id. at 519. [8] Id. at 526.