The True Purpose of a Sports Law In-Service
Although there is a misperception among many school and athletics administrators that the primary purpose of sports law-focused professional development for coaches, athletic trainers and other personnel is to merely reduce the legal exposure of districts, schools, sports programs and the individuals who oversee athletic activities, the true purpose of a law-related in-service is to better protect the health, well-being and legal rights of student-athletes.
Some athletic directors rebel against the idea of providing an educational program focused on legal issues because they incorrectly believe that it is merely a “CYA” strategy for preventing lawsuits they assume are likely to be filed anyway and some resist providing such training because of a lack of time to do so.
Ultimately though, the mission of professional development regarding sports law is consistent with the purpose of any in-service program for school personnel – it’s all about doing what’s in the best interests of the kids and the over-arching goal of better serving the young people in our educational communities.
Without dispute, the beginning of every academic year is a period of time during which athletics administrators are overwhelmingly busy dealing with all of the broad policy challenges and specific organizational tasks related to launching new sports seasons – and that’s even in the years when athletic directors are not having to strategize regarding the best approach for dealing with an unprecedented global pandemic. However, the benefits flowing to student-athletes of a sports law in-service for athletics personnel are so great that conducting such a program should be a priority for every district or building athletics administrator.
The following are 10 reasons – set forth in no particular hierarchy of importance – that it is crucial for athletic directors to annually conduct a sports law in-service that is mandatory for all of the school’s head coaches, assistant coaches, non-teacher coaches, volunteer coaches, athletic trainers and other personnel who play any role in the school’s sports programs.
1. Emerging Legal Issues
Although it might appear to be sufficient to conduct a onetime sports law in-service for athletics personnel at the beginning of each individual’s involvement with the school’s sports program, novel legal issues regularly emerge regarding which coaches need to be provided with information and guidance. Therefore, annual law-related professional development is necessary to ensure that athletics personnel are familiar with trending legal issues impacting their programs.
This year’s COVID-19 pandemic is an example of one such new challenge confronting those who administer high school sports. Clearly, the primary concern during the crisis is the health and well-being of everyone in our educational communities, but a secondary concern is to ensure that school and athletics personnel are fulfilling their legal duties regarding the coronavirus’ impact on those persons at risk from the disease. Ultimately, any liability issues that arise will likely be resolved with reference as to whether “reasonable care” was exercised, a question that will require an evaluation concerning the adherence by school and athletics personnel to the protocols established by medical experts, state and local governments, boards of education, sports governing bodies, and school districts.
Therefore, it is incumbent on athletic directors that everyone involved in an institution’s athletics program be in-serviced regard ing mandatory or recommended procedures for dealing with the coronavirus. Included should be thorough coverage of any compulsory protocols required for a high school’s sports activities, along with supporting guidance from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (www.cdc.gov), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (www.nih.gov) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which in July launched a free, online course titled COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators, available at the NFHS Learning Center. The class is a collaboration between the NFHS and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and includes information from the NFHS document titled Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities, issued in May and available at www.nfhs.org.
2. New Legal Pronouncements
Another reason for annual sports law in-services is that every year new legal standards emerge in the form of case decisions issued by federal and state courts, statutes enacted by federal and state legislatures, rulings handed down by federal and state administrative agencies, regulations released by federal and state administrative agencies, and other sources of law implemented via other forms of legal pronouncements.
For example, on May 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued new regulations governing the investigation of sexual assault and sexual harassment in schools, including incidents occurring in sports programs. The new rules went into effect on August 14, 2020, and school athletics personnel nationwide, including all coaches, need to be in-serviced regarding their legal duties pursuant to the new regulations related to responding to incidents of sexually-oriented hazing, inappropriate relationships between athletic personnel and student-athletes, peer sexual assault, and other manifestations of sexual harassment in school sports programs.
OCR resources useful in preparing a professional development session by an athletic director on the new regulations are available here.
3. Liability for Injury Standards
Although many coaches have a solid educational background in sports administration and are aware of their legal obligations related to safeguarding the health and well-being of student-athletes, some athletics personnel never received adequate sport-specific training and need to be in-serviced regarding the categories of legal responsibilities imposed upon them by court case precedents and black-letter law, including the duties of planning, supervision, proper technique instruction, warnings, safe playing environment, protective athletic equipment, evaluation of injuries and incapacities, immediate medical assistance, emergency response plans, safe transportation, and other related legal mandates.
The most effective resource for preparing an in-service on the topic is the set of materials provided to athletic directors in the NIAAA Leadership Training Institute (LTI) course 504 (Legal Issues I), available at www.niaaa.org, which includes detailed coverage of all of the categories of legal duties and more than 100 court case summaries illustrating those legal obligations.
4. Hazing & Preventative Strategies
One of the greatest challenges confronting athletic directors is hazing prevention. Since 2000, there have annually been reports of more than 100 incidents nationwide of hazing in high school sports programs, dozens of which each year have involved sexually- oriented behaviors rising to the level of sexual abuse of the athlete- victims. Many of these hazing incidents have resulted in civil suits against districts and athletics personnel, along with criminal charges against the direct perpetrators based on state anti-hazing and sexual assault laws. In addition, because hazing victims in school sports cases are usually minors, some of the incidents have resulted in criminal prosecutions of school and athletics personnel for failing to fulfill their mandatory duties under state child-abuse reporting statutes.
A common thread in these hazing incidents, according to the external reviews that are typically commissioned by districts in such cases, is that although the athletics program in question tech nically had a written anti-hazing policy, insufficient effort was invested in training coaches regarding implementation of the policy. In other words, the school’s anti-hazing strategy was determined to have been “form over substance” and therefore failed – often catastrophically – to provide effective protections for student-athletes.
Useful as resources for athletic directors in developing an anti-hazing in-service program are the materials included in the hazing module of the LTI course 508 (Legal Issues III), and the free NFHS online course titled Bullying, Hazing & Inappropriate Behavior, available through the NFHS Learning Center at www. NFHSLearn.com.
5. Title IX & Gender Equity in Sports Offerings
One of the most-often misunderstood laws affecting school athletics programs is Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, a broad-based anti-gender-discrimination statute with multiple applications to academic institutions, sports programs, and other extracurricular activities. Sports law in-services need to include a component designed to provide athletics personnel with an understanding of the broad equity mandates of the law regarding equivalence of opportunity for female students to participate in sports and to receive benefits comparable to those received by male student-athletes.
The most effective resource for conducting an in-service on Title IX is the set of materials provided to athletic directors in the LTI course 506 (Legal Issues II), available at www.niaaa.org, which includes detailed coverage of the Title IX Compliance Framework, along with numerous OCR “resolution agreements” (settlements) and court case summaries.
6. Sexual Harassment Prevention
Another of the most common challenges facing school sports programs is the prevention of inappropriate relationships between athletics personnel and student-athletes, of which dozens are reported annually involving coaches who violate their positions of trust by “grooming” players in order to manipulate them into entering sexual relationships.
Useful resources for conducting an in-service on the topic are the materials provided to athletic directors in the LTI course 506 (Legal Issues II), available at www.niaaa.org, the new OCR regulations referenced above that went into effect on August 14, 2020, summarized here, and the free NFHS online course titled Protecting Students from Abuse, available at www.NFHSLearn.com.
7. Constitutional Rights of Student-Athletes
A recurring issue for school athletics programs is developing legally valid student-athlete codes of conduct and implementing such policies in a manner that does not violate the rights of players. Student-athletes and their parents often file legal challenges to sanctions imposed by schools, claiming violations of constitutional guarantees related to due process, equal protection, free speech, freedom of assembly, free exercise of religious beliefs, the establishment clause, and the right of privacy.
An effective resource for athletic directors to use in educating athletics personnel on the rights of student-athletes is the constitutional law module in the LTI course 508 (Legal Issues III), available at www.niaaa.org, which includes detailed policy recommendations and more than 100 court case summaries.
8. Disabilities Law Applications
Every year, numerous OCR complaints and federal lawsuits are filed, asserting that school athletics programs or personnel have violated the legal mandates of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, either in the structure of an institution’s sports activities or because of a lack of reasonable accommodations being provided for student-athletes with disabilities.
A useful resource for preparing an in-service on the topic is the set of materials provided to athletic directors in the LTI course 508 (Legal Issues III), available at www.niaaa.org, which includes detailed coverage of the application of the ADA, IDEA and Section 504 to academic eligibility requirements, maximum age limits for sports participation, eight-semester and four-season restrictions on participation, transfer rules, and legal mandates regarding the implementation of allied, unified and adapted sports activities.
9. Anti-Discrimination Mandates
In recent years, there has been extensive litigation involving the approaches employed by sports programs imposing restrictions on student-athletes related to grooming, dress codes, hair styles, tattoos and religious garb – code of conduct mandates that are often determined by courts to have violated the rights of student- athletes because the policies disproportionately impacted those of certain races, ethnicities and religions without a significant safety justification. There has also been increasing litigation involving the treatment of pregnant and parenting student-athletes and the participation rights of LGBTQ players. Coaches need to be in-serviced regarding the prevailing equal protection legal standards prohibiting discrimination against student-athletes.
Resources for educating athletics personnel on sports law anti-discrimination mandates are included in the LTI courses 508 (Legal Issues III), and 510 (Legal Issues IV), both available at www.niaaa.org.
10. Intellectual Property
Coaches need to be familiar with the basic parameters of copyright and trademark law related to the use of music during games, on team websites, and in team social media postings, along with intellectual property limitations regarding the use of protected logos, mascot images, nicknames and writings in the distribution of online or hard-copy materials to players.
Resources for educating athletics personnel on copyright and trademark issues are included in the LTI course 510 (Legal Issues IV), available at www.niaaa.org, and the free NFHS online course titled Understanding Copyright & Compliance, available at www.NFHSLearn.com.
Lee Green is an attorney and Professor Emeritus at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where for 30 years he taught courses in sports law, business law and constitutional law. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee. He may be contacted at Lee.Green@BakerU.Edu.