The NCAA’s Lack of Clarity regarding Coaches Liability for Abuse of Players

By: Alexandra Laird

Hillary Dole’s first Friday at Cornell ended with a broken nose and a bloody face. The event she participated in was an annual tradition for the Cornell University Softball Team, all new recruits were instructed to pull beanie hats over their eyes and stand in a line.[1] Next, they were effectively blindfolded, and their teammates and coach yelled at them to run. “It was confusing, chaotic, intimidating, and I didn’t know what to do.” [2] “I ran because the culture in sports is such that you just kind of do what you’re told that’s just how it is when you play on a team. And so I ended up running 40 yards face-first into a brick wall.” [3] Dole assumed she wouldn’t be put in danger by the team, which is still led by coach Julie Farlow. She suffered a severe concussion that left her with headaches and sensitivity to light, which the coach forced her to play through on the brightly lit field. [4] 

In a separate instance, The Daily Orange reported that since 2018, 12 players have quit/ transferred the Syracuse Softball Team. Those players say that they dealt with adverse mental health effects brought on by the environment within the head coaches’ program.[5] Allegations ranged from verbal harassment and abuse to bizarre mistreatment, including one claim where a player was forced to hand-launder uniforms, but wasn’t allowed to dry them. That incident led to the team competing in damp uniforms, ultimately resulting in several players contracting urinary tract and yeast infections.[6]

Both Title VII and Title IX are available to a coaches/employee to address workplace settings concerning the coach’s employment conditions. [7] But nothing discusses the coaches as employees of the universities and their obligations to their players. NCAA states in their manual that intercollegiate athletics programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student-athletes and to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for participating student-athletes.[8] It is the responsibility of each member institution to ensure that coaches and administrators exhibit fairness, openness and honesty in their relationships with student-athletes’.[9] Although players do not have an employer/employee relationship the NCAA defines the  necessary relationship as the following: the responsibility of each member institutionto establish and maintain an environment that fosters a positive relationship between the student-athlete and coach.” [10]  Lastly, they describe the head coaches’ level of responsibility as: “An institution’s head coach shall promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to the coach”. [11]

NCAA Failure to Take a Role:

“The NCAA needs to take an active role,” said Ramogi Huma, a former college football player and executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes. “Instead, they sit on their hands time and time again. They’ll investigate players for making a few bucks from selling their own autographs, but if that player is beat up by a coach, or put back into a game with a concussion, risking his life because the coach wants to win a game, the NCAA does nothing.” [12]

The NCAA has punished coaches for breaking recruiting rules and certain other kinds of misconduct, with the most serious sanction being the association’s show-cause penalty, which requires a coach’s current institution (if he or she has kept a job) or prospective future employer (if he or she has been fired) to meet with the NCAA to justify the coach’s employment.[13] Such punishments are reserved for recruiting violations or academic fraud.[14] Coaches are rarely, if ever, punished by the NCAA for abusive behavior, because there are no NCAA rules devoted to verbal and physical abuse of players.[15] Therefore, there needs to be a change in the liability for coaches’ actions for abusive behavior.

[1] Lindsey Dodgson, Female college athletes from across the US say they’ve been bullied, manipulated, and psychologically abused by their coaches, The Insider (Oct. 20, 2020)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Anthony Alandt & Connor Smith, Former SU softball players allege abuses by head coach Shannon Doepking, The Daily Orange (May 13, 2021)

[6] Id.

[7] Kim Turner, The Rights of School Employee Coaches Under Title VII and Title IX in Educational Athletic Programs, 32 ABA Lab. & Emp. L. J. 229, 230 (2017).

[8] NCAA, 2020-2021 NCAA Division I Manual art. 2.2.3, at 2 (2020)

[9] See NCAA, supra note 8, art 2.2.5 at 2.

[10] See NCAA, supra note 8, art. 2.2.4 at 2.

[11] See NCAA, supra note 8, art. at 47.

[12] Jake New, Abused Athletes, Insider Higher Ed. (Sept. 1, 2016)

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

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