"Coaches should pursue opportunities for professional development to keep abreast of best practices, safety, and legal issues within their chosen sport(s)" (Schaefer, 2008, Risk Management Tips Section, ¶ 5).
Challenges for Coaches
During 2006, Bill Baker, a Sahuarita High School football coach in Chandler, Arizona resigned from his coaching position following a 2005 post-game incident which involved him and a player the previous fall. In the newspaper account, "Coach quits over legal dispute: Sahuarita's Baker facing charges involving player," Pedersen (2006) reports that Baker, 53, who cited a lack of support from the Sahuarita Unified School District, also resigned his position as golf coach; however, continued teaching character-education class at the school. The school's district reported that because its liability insurance applied only to civil claims, it could not legally represent employees in criminal cases. Baker denied charges against him that he threw punches at a student and was not found guilty.
The incident involving Baker, as with all legal issues, included two sides recounting "the story" of what happened. In the book, Coaching: A Realistic Perspective, Sabock and Sabock, (2008) assert that high school or college coaches do not need to be experts in every aspect of legal liability in their roles as coaches, they do need to understand the basic legal responsibilities they have to athletes they coach. This paper, which comprises one chapter of a professional portfolio, includes a number of contemporary legal considerations and aspects regarding issues and challenges facing athletic programs that a potential high school or college coach needs to know. Each year, approximately 3.7 million emergency room visits in the United States can be attributed to sports-related injuries. Nationwide, these injuries kill an average of 150 student-athletes. These injuries and deaths not only cost Americans a minimum of $680 million in medical expenses annually, they may also involve legal expenses. In the article, "The 'inherent risk' doctrine, amateur coaching negligence, and the goal of loss avoidance," Fitzgerald (2005) asserts that just as personal injuries constitute an unavoidable consequence of American sports -- so do numerous lawsuits that allege and attribute sports-related negligence to coaches.
The primary concern for coaches needs to be on the area of torts, according to Sabock and Sabock (2008). "A tort is a legal wrong that results in direct or indirect injury to an individual or an individual's property and for which payment for damages may be obtained by court action" (Sabock & Sabock, p. 283). Fitzgerald (2005) explains that general consensus exists that a fault-based tort system like the American negligence system holds some intrinsic deterring force.
The fundamental point of the deterrence claim regarding tort liability contends that the law can discourage parties from engaging in tortious conduct through the enforcement of the threat of liability on that conduct. "Thus, tort law can be viewed in economic terms as an incentive-based behavioral model, in which reasonably safe conduct is left alone while antisocial conduct is discouraged through the imposition of liability" (Fitzgerald, 2005, The Goal of Loss Avoidance Section, ¶ 3). A proper allocation of risk permits courts to impose liability to create incentives for both parties to demonstrate responsible conduct; consequently reducing the incidences of avoidable injury. Concerns routinely arise, nevertheless, regarding the proper allocation of risk regarding coaching decisions.
Avoiding Legal Ramifications
Heat stroke depicts one liability concern that has affected the behavior of coaches and their decisions in recent years. Since 1995, 21 student-athletes have died from heat stroke. During the summer of 2001, "three high profile athletes died of heat stroke during pre-season workouts (and their families subsequently filed lawsuits against the coaches)" (Fitzgerald, 2005, The Goal of Loss Avoidance Section, ¶ 11). During the next year, however, following the publicized report of these students' deaths, no reported deaths involving heat stroke occurred. Not insulating coaches from liability for acts of careless conduct, like exposing them to the potential to heat stroke, Fitzgerald contends, demonstrates a truism inherent in American tort law: Rules of liability may be utilized to minimize the incidence of unnecessary injury as well as deter needless injurious behavior.
Careless coaching decisions, a concern high school and college coaches need to recognize, do not constitute unavoidable risk. Fitzgerald (2005) reports that one study concludes:
Heat-related deaths are either entirely or almost entirely avoidable .... Fatalities like these often meant someone forgot to emphasize or practice what [doctors] have been reminding coaches and trainers about for years. Players should get all the water they want in practice and have frequent cooling-off breaks to prevent these tragedies. (Fitzgerald, 2005, Avoidable Risk Section, ¶ 3)
Numerous other sports-related risks can implicate high school and/or college coaches. "Other examples include overmatching student-athletes, failure to provide proper instruction, failure to respond to injury in a timely manner, and allowing injured students to participate in competition" (Fitzgerald, 2005, Avoidable Risk Section, ¶ 8). Although sports participants assume all risks that arise out of "improper coaching," primarily when they participate in a "savage sport" like boxing, some such ensuing injuries may be eliminated or reduced relatively easy when coaches adopt preventative logistical measures and properly coach participants.
To help ensure high school and college coaches avoid challenges involving torts relating sports related deaths as well as other avoidable injuries, coaches need to invest concentrated, deliberate focus on preventive measures. The following list, related in the article, "Legal and Ethical responsibilities of a coach," represents a number of codes of conduct and behaviors Engelhorn (2011) recommends for coaches to help avoid potential negative legal ramification:
1. Facilitate practices and games in a safe and secure or physical environment.
2. Utilize contemporary knowledge of methods of instruction along with proper skills.
3. Ensure players have the access to and use appropriate as well as safe equipment.
4. Implement both proper short- and long-term planning.
5. Properly match athletes in practices and games by their ability, experience and size.
6. Supervise and/or provide adequate supervision of athletes at all times they participate in practices or games.
7. Supply warnings of risks inherent in sport participation to parents and athletes.
8. Be sensitive to the health and well-being of athletes.
9. When warranted, provide appropriate emergency care (Engelhorn, 2011, ¶ 7).
Lists regarding coaching responsibilities abound, with some primarily focusing on legal concerns and others encompassing ethical issues. "The legal and ethical issues are not mutually exclusive, as many of the legal responsibilities are based upon societal ethics, doing what is morally right" (Engelhorn, 2011, ¶ 6). Coaches are legally bound to ensure athletes remain free from discrimination and harassment as well as both physically and emotionally safe. In additions to the above list of considerations, the Iowa coaching authorization course on coaching ethics relates the additional, ultimately "legal" responsibilities for coaches:
Prevent harassment and discrimination by coaching staff and athletes;
report suspected child abuse to proper authorities;
respect and protect the confidentiality of student personal records;
report breaches of ethical behavior by colleagues (Engelhorn, 2011, ¶ 8).
Coaches routinely develop and implement numerous tactics to help ensure their teams win. The generalization that coaches have the mentality to "win-at-all cost," albeit, constitutes a negative generalization sometimes unfairly attributed to individuals who choose to coach high school and college youth. "Generalizations," Sabock and Sabock (2008) stress, "are usually dangerous and unfair simply because of what they are -- generalizations" (p. 286). In a similar sense, coaches cannot afford to generalize tactics regarding to or ignore their legal liabilities. Instead, coaches can opt to implement one specific defense against liabilities -- an "ounce of care" -- doing whatever needs to be done to prevent an accident from occurring.
The high school and college coach cannot eliminate the inherent risks of competition or always prevent an accident. Nevertheless, a comparative negligence standard would impose a proportionate share of liability on these coaches if/when they should fail to create and/or ensure a reasonably safe context for individuals in their care engaging in vigorous competition. To avoid this concern, coaches can adopt preventative logistical measures like scheduled water breaks, shorten practice sessions on extremely hot days, and ensure reasonable access to medical equipment and personnel. They can also warn students about complex dangers like heat stroke as well as risks relating to the student's use of performance enhancing and/or illicit drugs. (Fitzgerald, 2005).
Sabock and Sabock, (2008) relate the following general factors that can contribute to high school and college coaches facing negligence claims against them:
1. The absence of protective measures. As coaches should anticipate the potential hazards involved in sports-related activities, they should invest necessary precautions to protect the safety of the athlete.
1. Poor selection of activities. When a coach fails to appropriately match activities to the athlete's age, size, and skill, serious injury an occur; consequently constituting an act of negligence.
1. Unsafe conditions of equipment and facilities. Coaches should not permit student athletes to use any piece of equipment until they examine it and ensure it to be free from defects and that it…