SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes known as the "brawl that begins with prayer," recreational basketball in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of getting out of hand.
There was even a movie made about it in 2006 called "Church Ball." An IMDb summary of the comedy includes the line, "What was supposed to strengthen the body, invigorate the mind and cultivate brotherly love seems to bring out the worst in these church-going ball players."
Though most incidents between opponents — typically members of the same geographic area known as a stake — don't end up in court, one case made it all the way to the Utah Supreme Court.
The court recently ruled against a Utah man who sued an opposing player after being injured in a church-sponsored game in 2012.
In his arguments, an attorney for the man invoked a quote attributed to the late Arizona Sen. John McCain during a 1989 Senate floor speech:
"While the lawlessness of MMA is a dangerous and brutal exercise, there is one sport, more vicious and cold-blooded, that takes place in Mormon meetinghouses across this great nation of ours. I speak, of course, of LDS Church basketball."
While the justices say they couldn't find the quote in the Congressional Record and that it might be "internet apocrypha," it conveys an accepted view of "church ball" among many who have "experienced this phenomenon — an athletic competition acclaimed on some local T-shirts as 'the brawl that begins with prayer.'”
"At least one of the parties to this case seems to see it that way," Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote in the court opinion.
Judd Nixon was dribbling the ball down the court to take a shot with Edward Clay chasing him to contest it. As Clay approached Nixon’s right side, he extended his right arm over Nixon’s shoulder to reach for the ball, according to court documents.
Nixon came to a “jump stop” at the foul line and began his shooting motion. Clay’s arm made contact with Nixon’s right shoulder. Nixon then felt his left knee pop and both men fell to the ground. The referee determined the contact wasn't intentional and called a common foul on Clay.
The undisputed evidence shows that these actions are inherent in the game of basketball.
–Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee
Three years later, Nixon filed a court complaint alleging that Clay's negligence caused his knee injury.
Clay asked the district court to adopt a “contact sports exception” that provides that participants in bodily contact sports are liable for injuries only when the injuries are the result of “willful” or “reckless disregard for the safety of the other player.”
The court agreed and ruled in Clay's favor, also accepting his other argument that no jury could find that he acted negligently based on the play.
Nixon appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court.
In a 5-0 decision, the justices affirmed the lower court ruling, though on a slightly different legal basis.
Instead of relying on the “contact sports exception” that hinges on a defendant’s state of mind and on whether an activity qualifies as a "contact sport," the justices found basketball is inherently a contact sport, citing "boxing out" for a rebound as permitted under the rules.
"It is undisputed that Nixon was injured when Clay 'reached in' and 'swiped at the basketball,' incidentally making contact with Nixon’s shoulder," Lee wrote. "And the undisputed evidence shows that these actions are inherent in the game of basketball."
Lee wrote that the justices decided that voluntary participants in sports don't have to avoid contact that is inherent in the activity.
Nixon claimed in his original lawsuit that Clay "tackled" him, and tackling isn't inherent to basketball. But the justices found that argument "immaterial" because Nixon conceded the injury happened on Clay's swipe not the alleged tackle.
"And because the parties agree that the injury did not occur during the 'tackle,' we need not decide whether some form of 'tackling' is inherent in the game of basketball," Lee wrote.