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Could IK Enemkpali be charged with assault for sucker punching Geno Smith?

The special circumstances of Enemkpali's punch could have greater consequences than the average camp skirmish.

Geno Smith will miss six to 10 weeks after reportedly being sucker punched by teammate IK Enemkpali in the Jets' locker room Tuesday. Training camp fights are a rite of summer, but rarely do they escalate so much that they result in serious damage. Ideally they should take place on the practice field, where players are in pads and skirmishes are more an extension of the plays on the field, rather than in a locker room, where players ought to be friendly with one another.

Because of the extraordinary circumstances of Enemkpali's punch, he was swiftly released by the team. Now he'll have to hope that finding a new place to play football is the worst of his worries. Though a certain level of extracurricular violence is tolerated in football, sucker punches are not. As such, Enemkpali could be facing assault charges for breaking the jaw of the Jets' starting quarterback.

What does the law say?

Here's how New Jersey statutes define simple assault.

2C:12-1. Assault. a. Simple assault. A person is guilty of assault if he:

(1)     Attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another; or

(2)     Negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or

(3)     Attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

Simple assault is a disorderly persons offense unless committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent, in which case it is a petty disorderly persons offense.

Bullet point (1) applies most readily to Enemkpali. Assuming Smith didn't provoke Enemkpali and couldn't conceivably be considered to have entered into the altercation on mutual terms, it certainly seems that Enemkpali acted "purposely, knowingly or recklessly."

If found guilty he would face a relatively light punishment of a fine no more than $1,000 and no less than $500. That's assuming Enemkpali isn't charged with aggravated assault, however. Here's the key bit from New Jersey statue:

b.     Aggravated assault. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he:

(1)     Attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely or knowingly or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life recklessly causes such injury.

If Enemkpali is charged with anything, aggravated assault seems unlikely, because a punch to the jaw wouldn't put Smith's life in danger under most circumstances, nor did it threaten to do irreparable damage to a vital organ. If found guilty, however, Enemkpali could face much steeper fines and/or jail time, depending the determined the severity of the act.

Has something like this happened before?

Yep. Former Washington State defensive lineman Emmitt Su'a-Kalio was arrested after breaking the jaw of a freshman quarterback during a locker room altercation in 2013. He was booked on felony second-degree assault charges, then pleaded guilty down to fourth-degree assault in April 2014, earning 240 hours of community service and 12 months of unsupervised probation.

Players have gotten in trouble for on-field violence in the past, as well. A Missouri high school football player was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2013 for ripping off an opponent's helmet and striking him with it. The player was given two years unsupervised probation.

What may save Enemkpali?

We still don't know the full story of what happened. As the New Jersey statue points out, assault charges can't be brought up against anyone who entered into a fight by mutual consent. If Smith was sufficiently provoking Enemkpali (it certainly sounded as if there was an argument beforehand) then Enemkpali may avoid legal trouble.

Charges would also have to be brought up against Enemkpali -- which seems more likely now that the defensive end has been released, but still would invite more attention to the incident than the Jets probably would like.

Finally, there's the fact that the players are participants in a sport that is based on violence. There is a lot a leeway given to players in the heat of the moment, lest we forget that Ndamukong Suh was simply suspended and not arrested for stepping on Aaron Rodgers' ankle last season. That leeway may extend to the locker to some (small) extent.

The decision is ultimately Smith's. Jets head coach Todd Bowles certainly didn't think his quarterback was entirely blameless called the altercation "childish." All parties may be happy to leave things at that.


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