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Legal Brief                                                         Page 11

 

Coaches Suing Parents of Athletes

BY LEE E. GREEN

At the start of a game, a high school basketball coach sends all 12 members of his varsity squad onto the court for the opening tip. When a referee informs the coach he has too many players on the floor, the coach replies that his starting lineup is the dozen on the court.

After the official levies seven technical fouls for the extra players, the coach turns toward his players’ parents in the stands and states in exasperation: “See, I told you they can’t all be starters!”

Although most parents find positive ways to be involved, parental interference is a growing reality. How should school leaders deal with the vocal minority whose negative behavior rises to the level of harassment? This includes the filing of frivolous lawsuits by parents against coaches and the malicious spreading of false information about coaches to other parents, school board members and news media.

Increasingly, athletics personnel are fighting back by filing lawsuits against parents who engage in such abusive behavior. The suits typically assert one or more of the following causes of action: defamation, false light, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.LeeGreen2_LegalBrief

Court Cases

Recent court cases are illustrative. In a 2009 Connecticut trial court decision, a high school swim coach won an $88,000 judgment against a swimmer’s mother who in a series of e-mails and letters made false allegations that the coach was abusing team members and was a pedophile. The judge ruled the coach had been libeled and her privacy was invaded by portraying her in a false light to the public, causing her to suffer severe emotional distress. In his written opinion, the judge stated that the mother’s “attacks on [the coach] were singularly malicious, outrageous and evil.”

In 2005, a Chicago-area jury awarded $800,000 to a high school baseball coach for libel after a disgruntled parent sent out fake press releases to print and broadcast media outlets falsely claiming the coach was being investigated by the Illinois High School Association for inappropriate coaching practices.

A high school baseball coach in California received a $700,000 jury award in 2005 in a slander suit in which a father had circulated malicious statements alleging the coach mistreated players and impaired his son’s opportunity to earn a college baseball scholarship. A juror in the case explained the award was so high because the jury “wanted to make a statement that he was an overzealous parent who went too far. … [A] lot of these parents are living their dreams through their kids and this case should send a message to those parents.”

Promoting Awareness

To prevent such litigation, school administrators should institute policies that encourage coaches to share information about parents who cross the line from reasonable criticism to excessively abusive behavior. This enables school officials to proactively intervene to prevent escalation.

Parents possess a free speech right to express their opinions about the performance of school employees, including coaches. The chief obstacle to lawsuits by athletics personnel against abusive parents has been the use of an anti-SLAPP defense. (SLAPP refers to “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” tied to state statutes intended to protect the free speech rights of citizens to comment on public issues.)

However, some courts have declined to apply anti-SLAPP laws to litigation by coaches. In Sandholm v. Kuecker, the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012 ruled the state’s anti-SLAPP law does not apply to school athletics personnel suing parents for false and defamatory statements because such suits are not primarily intended to stifle free speech.

The case was filed against a parent group by an athletic director who doubled as the school’s varsity basketball coach. He claimed the parent group had circulated false and derogatory information about his abusive style of coaching through social media and a website. The parents’ actions led to the school board dismissing him from his coaching duties.

School administrators should consult with district counsel to determine whether a state anti-SLAPP law is in force in the jurisdiction that might limit the ability of athletics personnel to successfully seek legal recourse for defamatory statements by a parent or community member.


Lee Green, an attorney, is professor of business and economics at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan. E-mail: Lee.Green@bakeru.edu

 

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