Coaching Perspectives in the New Millennium
By William D. Berard III, Attorney at Law, Certified McGrath Trainer
Article to be published in Winter 2000 issue of NFHS Coaches Quarterly magazine
As we enter the new millennium it is important to review our attitudes and perspectives on coaching to be certain that we are current with the changing times. In today’s litigious society the area of sexual harassment law has now permeated the coaching ranks. In addition, coaches are being held liable for not properly assessing players’ injuries or permitting players to participate while they were injured. Finally, coaches today must be aware of student athletes’ attitudes and personalities in order to effectively relate to them. This article will discuss these three areas and give insight as to how we can continue to be successful coaches.
There was a time not that many years ago when the thought of a coach being the subject of a lawsuit for conduct or comments toward a student athlete was nearly unheard of. What has caused a shift in this philosophy today, however, is the evolution of sexual harassment law. In 1998 the United States Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision in the case of Joseph Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. In that case, the Court established a cause of action for same-sex sexual harassment. In other words, as a result of the Oncale decision, sexual harassment can be the result of conduct which is male to male or female to female. Although the Supreme Court made it clear that all conduct is not necessarily sexual harassment, the decision opened the door to permit student athletes who feel that they have been mistreated to bring sexual harassment charges against their coach. What this means is that coaches who have in the past chose to use abrasive coaching styles, verbally abusing student athletes, and in the case of male athletes, making homophobic remarks toward them, must now reconsider this type of conduct. The Court established a standard in the Oncale decision, which states that the context of the situation must be considered. In order for sexual harassment to exist the conduct must be severe, persistent or pervasive. One comment standing alone, although definitely not appropriate, would more than likely not be construed as sexual harassment. A pattern of conduct over a period of time could create an atmosphere of hostile environment and have grave consequences upon the coach, individually and the educational institution.
Sexual harassment is defined as a form of discrimination that is sexual in nature and unwelcome or unwanted by the victim. In the area of interscholastic athletics it may at times be difficult to ascertain as to whether the conduct was indeed unwelcomed by the athlete. In many instances the athlete is certain to be offended by the conduct but to is too ashamed or embarrassed to advise the coach that it is unwelcome to that individual. What is of a greater concern is the fact that the coach does not have to be directly informed by the athlete that the conduct is unwanted. In other words, should the conduct be unwelcomed, the athlete need only report same to a person in authority, such as an administrator.
An additional area of concern affecting coaches with regard to sexual harassment is conduct between coaches and other adult staff members. A coach should always consider the appropriateness of remarks or potentially suggestive comments toward others. The courts have consistently held that adult to adult sexual harassment is not to be tolerated and this type of conduct can lead to suspension or termination of the offender as well as potential civil litigation against the coach and/or educational institution.
A second issue to be discussed when considering coaching perspectives in the new millennium is the increasing number of lawsuits commencing from injuries of student athletes which occur during games and practices. Even though the notion of student athlete injuries is nothing new, the number of lawsuits arising from same is perhaps at an all time high. In order for a coach to protect both themselves and their educational institution, there are three practical rules which should always be considered. First, in assessing an athlete’s injuries, it is important to always be cautious and conservative in assessing as to when that player should return to action. We are seeing far too many athletes who suffer concussions being rushed back into play only to suffer the effects of a second and often more serious concussion. Analysis of head injuries is something that should not be done by a non-medical person. If the injury occurs during a game situation the coach should not, as a matter of principle, return the player to action prior to having the head injury assessed by a professionally trained medical person. There is always the pressure and temptation to return an athlete with a head injury at the earliest possible time. The pressure often comes from parents, college recruiters, professional scouts, and at times even the educational institution that employs the coach. One must always consider the physical health of the athlete above all else.
Second, it is imperative that a coach know their players and their respective limits. Institutions are being successfully sued by players and their families as a result of players who suffer from exhaustion, heat stroke, heart attacks and even death as a result of training regimens or practices which are too severe for the player under the conditions such as weather and location. A coach must always be mindful as to what a player’s limits are and be certain not to exceed those boundaries.
A third area of concern regarding players’ injuries is the result of defective or improperly fitting equipment. In football, it is mandatory that educational institutions have set timetables for restoring and replacing helmets and other safety equipment. In the case of a defective product, even though it is the manufacturer who is more than likely to blame for the injury, more often than not the educational institution is also brought into any lawsuit.
The final coaching perspective to consider as we enter the new millennium is the importance of coaches being aware of the attitudes of student athletes today. Almost every day we hear the expression that “kids today are not like they used to be” or “kids were not like this when we were in school”. The fact is that both statements are somewhat accurate. Student athletes today bring with them different attitudes and priorities than students did ten or twenty years ago. It is often very difficult for individuals who have been coaching for several decades to understand this notion and make the necessary adjustments. Such adjustments are necessary in order for a coach to be able to effectively relate to their players.
In years past, a student athlete’s main and often only priority was playing their respective sport. Today, although an individual may be participating in a particular sport, that sport may not be the first, second or even the third priority in the student’s life. It seems that more students come from dysfunctional and disruptive home lives than ever. These issues often weigh heavily on a student’s outlook. Other students may, out of necessity, have to work one or two part time jobs which may at times interfere with their practice or game schedules. Students today also tend to view authority in a different way. Based upon what students watch on television, view over the Internet, play in video games and listen to in music, they are often sent mixed messages as to how to respect authority figures. Although it is imperative that a coach demand and receive respect from their players, that respect must be more of a mutual one today than in years past. It is much more of a two way street and a give and take relationship in how a coach deals with their athletes than in years past. The hard line coaching philosophy of “no pain, no gain” or “no guts, no glory” may not be effective in working with today’s athletes. For example, when a player arrives late for a practice it is better for a coach to talk to that individual directly and ask why that player was late for practice rather than immediately directing them to run extra laps for being late. The result may still be the extra laps or whatever measures the coach feels necessary, but it is important to first hear the player’s side of the story. This type of a relationship, which fosters mutual respect, is necessary for coaches to succeed with today’s student athletes.
In conclusion, the purpose of the above is not in any way meant to direct coaches to change their coaching styles or philosophies or deal with players in different manners than may have been successful for several decades. The purpose however, is to make coaches aware of the potential pitfalls, in dealing with today’s student athletes and the legal ramifications which may result.
About the Author
William D. Berard III, Esq., is a certified McGrath Trainer and trains educators throughout the United States and Canada on topics including sexual harassment, athletic liability, and safe schools/anti-violence programs. He has been a practicing attorney in Niagara Falls, New York, for fourteen years, specializing in education and human resource law. Mr. Berard is a former high school basketball coach and is also an associate professor in the graduate school of Sports Management at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.