The Pro Bowl Skills Challenge should be a time to celebrate elite NFL talents in a relaxed, safe and fan-friendly setting. Held in Orlando’s ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex, the challenge features five events. They include the Epic Pro Bowl Dodgeball, the 40 Yard Splash and the Gridiron Gauntlet.
One event not listed: tackle the unsuspecting mascot.
New York Jets safety Jamal Adams apparently thought such an activity ought to be on the list. On Wednesday, Adams was signing autographs when he noticed New England Patriots mascot Pat Patriot walking on the field among other mascots and stadium staff. In comments reported by ESPN’s Michael DiRocco, Adams recalls hearing fans boo Pat Patriot. It’s unclear why Pat Patriot attracted jeers, though Pat Patriot might attribute it to resentment of the Patriots’ success (nine trips to the Super Bowl since 2002) in a league designed for parity. Regardless, the boos prompted Adams to tell autograph seekers, “I’m going to go knock this mascot out!”
Adams then jogged toward Pat Patriot, who was turned the other way and had no idea Adams approached. With seconds to spare before impact, Pat Patriot turned around and saw the 6’1”, 213-pound Adams readying to leap on him. Adams then took Pat Patriot down to the ground.
Pat Patriot didn’t get up.
Adams clearly thought the shock tackle was funny. He later posted a video of the incident on Twitter, with the caption, “This one is for every Patriots hater out there! I got y’all!”
Upon learning that the person who played Pat Patriot may have been injured, Adams seemed to change his tune in an ESPN interview. “I didn’t hit him that hard, man … my intention was never to hurt him … we were out here just having fun and it wasn’t nothing intentionally to try to hurt the guy.”
Thankfully, it appears that the man who plays Pat Patriot wasn’t injured. Adams’s initial claim that the man was hospitalized might be false, though the tackle itself was not—as some have speculated—staged. Also, according to a statement issued by a Patriots spokesperson to WBZ-TV, Pat Patriot is merely “sore.” Such a mild description suggests that while Pat Patriot probably endured pain, he should be okay (with the important caveat that injuries sometimes become detectable days or weeks after impact). Further, the man who plays Pat Patriot—or at least the Patriots employee who operates Pat Patriot’s Twitter handle, @PatPatriot— has since tweeted photos of New England’s favorite mascot doing just fine.
— Pat Patriot (@PatPatriot) January 24, 2019
Hate us cause they ain't us ???? https://t.co/8UxlYbAZ75
— Pat Patriot (@PatPatriot) January 23, 2019
Potential consequences of injuries during Pro Bowl festivities
Particularly given that Pat Patriot has seemingly bounced back, it’s unlikely that Adams will face any repercussions. Still, the incident calls into question safety at the Pro Bowl, where players and other team personnel might act more recklessly due to the carefree setting. To that point, while Pro Bowl events are intended to be laid back, gruesome injuries have sometimes occurred. Back in 1999, Patriots running back Robert Edwards—fresh off a rookie season in which he rushed for 1,115 yards—tore the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left leg. He did so while playing in a beach flag football game with other players who were invited to show their skills in Pro Bowl activities. Edwards, whose left leg below the knee was almost amputated due to the severity of his injuries, would not play again in the NFL until 2002.
If Pat Patriot had been hurt in this leisurely setting, the analysis would change dramatically.
First, an injured mascot could sue the tackling player. This would seem especially true if the injury prevented the mascot from working. Along those lines, NFL mascots are hardly rich. They reportedly earn $25,000 to $75,000 a year with benefits. If an injured mascot sued, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress would be two relevant claims. Battery refers to intentionally causing harmful or offensive contact on another person. One need not intend to injure another person in order to commit battery. Mere intent to cause harmful or offensive contact would suffice. In the case of Adams, he deliberately tackled Pat Patriot. The contact inflicted some degree of harm, though, from what we know, Pat Patriot is only sore.
As to intentional infliction of emotional distress, it refers to behaving in such an extreme and outrageous manner so as to inflict severe mental distress on another person. A shock tackle at what is supposed to be an easygoing event could be construed as an outrageous act. Likewise, to turn around and suddenly see an NFL safety about to jump on you, and then to be thrown to the ground by that safety, could cause a typical person severe mental distress.
A player sued for tackling a mascot would be armed with several legal defenses. As a starting point, the mascot likely assumes some degree of risk as inherent in the job. Mascots routinely interact with players, including through staged fights and exaggerated brawls. Perhaps a player tackling a mascot could be thought of as part of the mascot’s job to entertain spectators. Then again, maybe not. While a staged altercation is mere dramatization that may have been choreographed with safety in mind and practiced long in advance, a surprise body slam is a real, spontaneous and potentially dangerous incident.
It’s also possible that the mascot’s employment contract (if he or she was employed through a contract) contains language that compels assumption of risk. Although it addresses a different job, the standard contract for an NFL cheerleader features language that indemnifies and holds harmless the NFL and its teams—as well as employees of those organizations—for any causes of action that might arise through the cheerleader’s employment. If similar language was contained in a mascot’s contract, it would make it difficult for the mascot to sue a player and especially difficult to sue the team that employs the player.
A mascot could also be limited by workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ compensation refers generally to an employment system whereby employees renounce their ability to sue over workplace injuries in exchange for immediate compensation to treat those injuries. The applicability of “workers’ comp” varies by situation, injury and applicable state law, but it often applies to injuries on the job.
In addition to suing the player, the mascot could target the player’s team, NFL and the stadium in which the incident occurred. Such claims would likely be in the form of alleged negligence, whereby the mascot would argue that the conditions that led to the injury were exacerbated by the unreasonable conduct of organizing parties.
The player’s team, for instance, might have better coached the player so that he would not act so recklessly while on the job. Or take the NFL: It could have more effectively warned players about their behavior during Pro Bowl activities and admonished them not to equate a relaxed setting with a license to hurt others. To that end, if players believed that damaging conduct during the Pro Bowl could trigger a punishment under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, the players would be less likely to engage in that type of conduct. Indeed, under Article 46, the commissioner has virtually unlimited discretion in determining what ought to count as “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.” As to the stadium, perhaps it could have more effectively separated mascots from the players and better insulated those mascots from spectators’ boos.
With Pat Patriot apparently okay, these legal points are unlikely to apply. But the next time a player decides to body slam a mascot, he might want to think twice and consider the implications in the event the mascot does suffer an injury.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.