Legal Concerns

LEGAL CONCERNS: More and More Coaches Are Filing Defamation Lawsuits Against Parents

For many years, it’s been noted that upset sports parents have become so angry with their kid’s coach that the parents have filed a lawsuit against the coach.

Most of these lawsuits are deemed by the courts as being frivolous, but the reality is that when a HS or travel team coach is sued, the defendant still has to secure an attorney to fight the charges, which cost time, money, and emotional expense. More importantly, these lawsuits become a matter of the public record, so that everyone in the local community now knows that a parent was so angry with a coach’s actions or behavior regarding the parent’s son or daughter that they are now taking the coach.

In short, it casts a long shadow on the coach’s reputation.

In recent years, coaches have been sued in cases like these:

> A father, who felt his son was headed to the NBA, sued the HS basketball coach when his son tried out but was cut from the HS team. The Dad sued for millions.

> A parent sued a travel team softball coach when the coach taught the daughter a pitching motion which turned out to be illegal. The girl lost a college scholarship, and the father sued the travel coach for $700,000.

> Another Dad, whose son was the leading scorer in a travel hockey program for 16-year-olds, was so angry that his son was not named as the league MVP, that he sued.

You get the idea. And there are thousands of other cases like these.

But now, a new wrinkle has popped up. More and more coaches are retaliating, and are filing their own lawsuits against parents who, the coaches feel, have gone too far and have defamed or besmirched the coach’s reputation.

COACHES WHO HAVE BEEN DEFAMED BY PARENTS

My guest this AM, law professor Doug Abrams, made it clear that to win a defamation claim, one needs to distinguish between opinion and fact. That is, if I say to my neighbor, “I think my daughter’s lacrosse coach isn’t very good,” well, that’s an opinion, and I’m entitled to my opinion as exercised by my right of freedom of speech. Opinions are not going to support a defamation case.

But if I say, “My daughter’s lacrosse coach routinely grabs girls by the neck in practice, and then pulls hard on their ponytails,” that’s a statement of fact. And if that factual proclamation is not true, then a coach can bring a cause for defamation. In other words, you can express personal opinions, but once you start making false statements, you could be in real trouble.

In a recent case in Minnesota, a HS hockey coach sued a mother whose son had been cut by the coach. Apparently, she had made numerous statements about the coach and his coaching methods that were not true. Outraged, the HS coach filed suit against her, which led to an out-of-court settlement in his favor, including a public apology from the Mom.

This is happening more and more around the country, and Doug and I discussed, this kind of “suing back” might add a chilling effect to parents who feel tempted to file a lawsuit against a coach. Remember, coaches at most public schools work on an annual contract, and if they feel they have been wronged, these retaliatory lawsuits can help clean their reputation and allow them to keep their coaching position.

TRYING TO KEEP THE PEACE

Speaking of which, one of the key factors in all of this is the role of the school AD and school board. Clearly they need to step up and defend their coaches from these kinds of charges, but it is always wise for the AD to investigate any serious complaints, especially if they come from a lot of parents.

As Doug points out, it’s one thing if a single parent complains about a coach and their kid being cut….but if a number of parents complain about the coach for the way he humiliates the kids in practice, then that’s a good indicator for the AD to step up and see what’s going on in the practice sessions.

In the meantime, it’s just very sad that we’re reached a point in American sports where parents AND coaches feel they have to resort to taking legal action instead of sitting down and simply communicating to resolve any issues.