By Lisa Matkowsky | Cleveland Jewish News
Youth sports are a year-round, multi-million-dollar industry, and they are subject to regulation by private and public entities. Generally, private organizations regulate youth sports, and the rules primarily address the conduct of coaches and parents.
Governmental regulation is more prominent in high school sports, including state concussion laws and laws against hazing. Samir Dahman, partner in charge of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, which has offices in Cleveland and Columbus, and Rubin Guttman, of Rubin Guttman & Associates LPA in Cleveland, discussed the most common liabilities and what responsibilities coaches have to best protect themselves and their players.
Sports injuries are one common liability, with head injury stories dominating the news media. It is estimated that every year, more than 50,000 concussions occur in high school football alone. Other sports, such as soccer and baseball, are not far behind. Nearly every state has adopted legislation designed to minimize the risk of head injuries.
“Ohio’s Youth Concussion Law prohibits coaches from allowing athletes to continue to play if there are symptoms of a concussion,” Guttman said. “If a child is suspected of having a concussion, they must be cleared by a physician or authorized health care provider, in writing, in order to be allowed to participate in the next game or class. It’s helpful to have coach training to recognize the signs of a head injury.”
Coach training has become more widely available as mindfulness of liability issues have has increased. Most states require some form of coach training every three years on concussion symptom identifications and protocols.
Other common liabilities in youth sports and school sports teams include bullying. In fact, Dahman said he encounters more bullying cases than injury cases in youth sports. He noted gender, race, economic status or just kids’ attitudes are common triggers in bullying cases.
“Inadequately supervised locker rooms are a big source of bullying and schools have a responsibility to be aware of that,” Guttman said. “Teachers and coaches must not fail to act like teachers and coaches, because students are going to act like students.”
Dahman said, “Unsupervised locker rooms are where a lot of bullying goes on, so it’s important that coaches, perhaps including one or more parents, be present in the locker room. Also, depending on the circumstances, if players need to change undergarments, they should do so individually in bathroom stalls to avoid any misconduct.”
Another source of liability is coach mishandling of a situation. That’s where the training can be very helpful.
Guttman said coach liability may arise when “the coach confuses himself with a bad drill sergeant” and works the players too hard in the heat, or behaves with “heedless dis-regard” for the players’ safety. Less about the original incident, the liability will center on the coach’s reaction.
“Liability is often about, ‘OK, coach, what did you do in response to the signs and symptoms of a head injury or a breathing problem. Did you send this player back in or did you send them to the doctor,” he said.
Occasionally, the mishandling comes as a result of over enthusiasm.
“Sometimes the coach thinks he or she is training the Olympic team instead of the school hockey team, and drives them too hard or in extreme conditions to achieve performance,” Dahman said.
It’s the coach’s responsibility to balance the need for player discipline and authority with extra vigilance for safety, which is not always easy, he said.
Dahman suggested that coaches “err on the side of caution. If a player does not want to participate in a certain activity, realize that it’s their loss.”
That could mean that if a mouthy player refuses to do assigned laps because he claims he has asthma, let him know he owes you the laps for when he’s feeling better. “It’s important to both understand the health conditions of all your players, as well as to use common sense. The point of youth or school sports is to have fun and to keep it safe.”
On a more basic level, Guttman emphasized the importance of routine equipment maintenance, and the essential duty to supervise younger kids on a playing field.
“It’s a matter of first do no harm,” he said. “There’s a responsibility for assuming proper care and avoiding what is avoidable. For being responsive. That’s a great start.”
Dahman said that when coaches are doing what is anticipated, and holding to standard practices, accidental training injuries are not something coaches need to worry about, and most injuries that occur are just considered to be accidents and would not be attributable to the coach.
“Whatever coaches do, they should always be certified by the governing board,” he said.
Parents sign participation and insurance waivers, and local and governing bodies have insurance, so if coaches are having players participate in expected activities under expected conditions, their responsibilities are being met.
Both lawyers recommend open communication with parents and players.
“Have preseason parent meetings and open email communication,” Dahman said. “Written codes of conduct and waivers are standard, and postgame informal, in-person talks are always a good idea,” he adds.