Protecting your athletic program
From Title IX to risk management, athletic directors must understand their obligations under the law
Between programs and budgets, there looms a larger responsibility for athletic directors to protect coaches, students and their schools from costly lawsuits resulting from negligence within their own departments.The question is how.
Sports law can be complex and the thousands of requirements and regulations seem to change at a rapid pace. Athletic directors must keep up, and the best way to achieve that is by seeking help from school officials and sports attorneys who can provide guidance on creating a safe playing environment that meets all legal obligations.
Some of the biggest challenges facing athletic directors today are Title IX, risk management and bullying — each presenting various issues for high schools. By developing a thorough understanding of the laws and regulations with each, athletic directors can take a huge leap forward in providing the best leadership for their athletics programs and their schools.
Title IX challenges
Title IX is 40 years old, and although most athletic directors are accustomed to the rules and regulations accompanying it, it continues to create problems for school districts that have trouble complying.
Peter Goplerud, dean at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla., says athletic directors don’t seem to be as educated on the requirements of Title IX as they should be. Several high school athletic departments around the nation are investigated each year for apparent violations.
Federal officials are currently reviewing a Texas high school after the former girls soccer coach filed a complaint. The coach resigned in part because he says his compensation was not equal to the pay given to coaches in other sports.
“I encourage the school board to take a close look at Title IX and assure that all sports are being treated fairly and equally as required under the law,” the coach told the school board, according to media reports. “The football program is great and deserves the recognition that it gets. Fortunately, for all other sports at the high school, Title IX says that they deserve the same treatment.”
Another high school in Massachusetts is under review for its response to two sexual assaults committed by a male student-athlete. The federal Civil Rights’ office says the school did not appropriately respond to the crimes, did not have appropriate Title IX grievance procedures in place and did not have a designee coordinating the district’s compliance under Title IX.
Issues also are apparent at the collegiate level. Quinnipiac University (Conn.) in 2012 was found to have violated Title IX by not providing enough opportunities for its female students. The university claimed competitive cheerleading was among its offerings, but the appellate court rejected the argument.
Goplerud’s colleague Ray Yasser litigated a number of Title IX cases, and he was successful in nearly all of them. Goplerud says that’s because for the most part school districts were either clueless to the regulations or they simply had no interest in complying.
“The sports don’t have to be exactly equal as long as the overall opportunities are equal,” Goplerud says. “But when you have a baseball team that has a nice playing field with grandstands and dugouts and the team travels all over to play in tournaments and then you have the girls softball team that plays all its games in a public park, changes uniforms in a bathroom at a convenience store and doesn’t get to take trips, you have a problem.
“It seems to be an obvious case, yet those kinds of things happen all the time.”
It’s realistic that some officials show blatant disregard for Title IX requirements, but many athletic directors say they’re dealing with a delicate balance where budget cuts force them to fall out of compliance. When athletic departments try to save money by dropping sports, it must be accomplished in a way that doesn’t offset the number of opportunities available to boys and girls. That sometimes can force unpopular cuts to programs that still have a great deal of demand.
Budget cuts are a common occurrence with sports departments around the nation, but Goplerud doesn’t believe it’s an issue that causes athletic directors much grief. But for those who do feel they need some sort of guidance, it’s important they consult with the school district’s attorney.
“I don’t think it’s that complex,” Goplerud says. “I think it’s a matter of priority. It also may be a matter of how frequently the athletic director or the principal is communicating with legal counsel and how well versed the school’s attorneys are.”
Emphasize risk management
At the forefront of critical issues facing athletic directors is injury management, particularly with growing concerns over concussions and what schools are doing to protect student-athletes. While it’s nearly impossible to prevent injuries–especially in contact sports like football–there are precautions athletic departments should take to limit the dangers.
The first is providing student-athletes with top-of-the-line equipment. Robert Wallace Jr., a St. Louis attorney who has counseled professional and college teams, says budget constraints cannot be an excuse to provide athletes with anything less than the most effective helmets and pads.
“Certainly in terms of football, you want to make sure that you have the latest technology that you can reasonably provide under the circumstances of your program,” Wallace says. “I also think you need to make sure that your coaches are teaching proper technique in order to protect themselves.”
Technique on the playing field doesn’t receive as much attention as equipment or regulations, which have almost entirely dominated the discussion on improving player safety. Football programs, for example, can decrease the number of concussions by helping athletes strengthen their necks in the weight rooms and teaching players to tackle properly.
Another factor is playing facilities. Athletic directors must be diligent in making sure the school’s fields and courts don’t present hazards that contribute to the risks athletes already face during competition. But while that’s necessary, Goplerud says it’s how coaches respond to a potential injury that could create the biggest problems for schools.
“The evolving protocol that the NFL is now the leader in is a starting point for evaluation of anybody that gets hurt and all of the immediate testing by the trainers and by the physicians that take place before you allow anyone back into competition,” Goplerud says.
Baseline testing is one of those practices, and even though its not mandatory in college and high school sports, Wallace says schools should considering adopting it on their own. Not only does it protect athletes from potential life-altering injuries, it also decreases the chances that the school or athletics program will face lawsuits resulting from negligence.
Baseline testing itself isn’t foolproof, and the process has come under scrutiny for its effectiveness after many coaches claim athletes have learned how to circumvent the system. If the athlete “sandbags” the initial test, it’s possible the trainer will have difficultly determining whether a concussion has occurred during a game.
Having something in place still shows parents and school district the athletic department is serious about addressing significant injuries. It’s a lot easier than answering questions later as to why the program decided not to have anything in place at all.
“Fifteen years ago you would say, ‘He just got his bell rung,'” Wallace says. “A bell rung is the precursor to, if not in fact, a concussion. You must take the proper steps to evaluate athletes and make sure you have some sort of baseline test so if someone has a concussion, you’re not just sending them back in there.
“There are a lot of conferences in college where if you have a concussion, you have a to sit out at least 10 days. Those kinds of procedures need to be taken. If you’re a school that doesn’t take those procedures and something happens, people are going to ask the question, ‘Why are your rules different?'”
Without hesitation Wallace agrees that baseline testing should become standard practice at all schools. In addition to that, athletic directors must know that those rules are being enforced by the coaches and trainers directly responsible for an athlete’s well being.
Athletic directors must not only hire coaches they can trust, but that message of compliance is reinforced constantly. It can be tempting sometimes for coaches to try to rush an athlete back to action, especially if there is a big game on the horizon or the student-athlete is eager to get back on the field.
Wallace says athletic directors need to make sure coaches are not making that decision in the first place. The majority of coaches do not have medical backgrounds and are not qualified to determine whether an athlete is ready for play. Trainers or physicians should be the only ones with the power to clear a player for action.
“Athletic directors really need to take the medical evaluations out of the coaches’ hands and put it into the hands of your medical team,” Wallace says. “Thirty years ago we weren’t giving people water at practice. Now everybody realizes that things like that are not making anybody tough. That’s a real risk.”
Implement bullying policies
Bullying is not exclusive to athletics, but sports programs certainly aren’t exempt from potential threats either. Whether a student is a victim or posing a threat to others, coaches and team members must follow a policy that requires them to report incidents to the athletic director. Ignoring problems or sweeping them under the rug sets up schools for potential lawsuits if serious damage is done.
What makes the issue more difficult to manage is a lot of bullying now takes place over the Internet. Athletic directors have questioned whether schools can reasonably be held liable given the difficulty in overseeing the actions of hundreds of student-athletes. If coaches and staff have no way of knowing about the bullying, it’s difficult to hold them responsible. But coaches still need to be proactive in educating and supervising students.
Again, that starts with the athletic director. There are plenty of resources available to help coaches identify signs of bullying, and they certainly must be aware of protocol and the potential consequences if they fail to report incidents.
“If it’s occurring in the context of a school-sanctioned team, there are circumstances where the school should reasonably know this is going on and there is the potential for exposure,” Goplerud says. “There are now states enacting legislation on bullying and it’s certainly something coaches and athletic directors need to familiarize themselves with.
“Cyber bullying is a bit more difficult to identify and it’s still a developing area of the law.”
Bullying doesn’t just take place at the student-athlete level and athletic directors also are responsible for keeping a close watch on coaches and staff. An example is Rutgers University, where men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in April after a video made public showed him verbally and physically abusing players in practice.
While most of the general public believes Rutgers made the right choice in cutting ties with Rice, many others believed it was merely an example of tough coaching. Some coaches today say they had coaches like Rice when they were younger, but Bob Ruxin, a sports attorney and president of Kazmaier Associates in Massachusetts, says there is a new normal and coaches must learn to accept that.
“Traditionally I think there has been a lot of coach bullying,” Ruxin says. “Coaches can be mean, but you have the Rutgers situation and the verbal abuse has been around high school athletics forever, and there is going to be an increasing sensitivity to that.”
One option for programs to safeguard themselves from cyber bullying is to place restrictions on student-athletes’ use of social media–an undoubtedly unpopular decision that likely will result in pushback. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have become staples among high school students, but attorneys agree it’s acceptable to place limitations on what athletes can do or say on social media. It’s a right they surrender once they become part of your athletic program.
At the very least, athletic directors should institute a widespread policy that prohibits student-athletes and coaches from inappropriately engaging with others on the Internet. That behavior can harm students and the reputation of the institution.
The various laws and liabilities surrounding sports departments can be confusing for athletic directors. Goplerud believes its uncommon for attorneys employed at school districts to be well versed in sports law. That leaves athletic directors wondering where to find help when they’re in need.
One option is the state athletic associations. They typically can provide some sort of guidance or, at the very least, recommend resources that lead to answers. The National Federation of High School Associations also is a valuable organization.
If it’s too overwhelming to find the answer on your own, Goplerud says to discuss the matter with principals or superintendents. You may also want to recommend that your school district’s attorney attend seminars or participate in webinars designed to educate attorneys about sports law.
The thousands of laws and regulation can be intimidating and complex, but Wallace says a lot of it comes down to common sense. Make sure you’re actions and policy reflect what’s in the best interest of students and staff and your athletic department will be on the path to avoiding lawsuits and other harmful conflicts in the future.
“Be careful on your rules and always go back to the mission: What are we trying to accomplish?” Wallace says. “There isn’t a manual out there for the right thing to do, but there is a moral compass that you need to have in how you deal with student-athletes.”