Ethical Misconduct in Coaching

Date: June 7, 2019
The recent news of athletic department recruitment scandals - accepting bribes to gain admissions using dedicated roster spots for non-athletes - and for the practice to so easily escape detection is diagnostic of a greater issue within the results-oriented world of collegiate athletics.[1] An environment conducive to ethical misconduct may exist where rules are stretched, improprieties are overlooked and whistleblowing only occurs at great personal risk, both for athletic department employees, as well as students.  Inadequate oversight of unethical misconduct can result in severe consequences, such as the recent and tragic death of a University of Maryland athlete.  In that case, an entire University Board was forced to functionally admit a major athletic program oversight.   Schools and universities must take steps now to ensure that oversight of ethical misconduct, particularly in the athletic department, is being handled appropriately.

Ethical misconduct by coaches and related staff is not confined to small or ill-run universities, with institutions such as Yale University, Stanford University, Georgetown University, Michigan State University, and the University of North Carolina, all named in recent times.  Additionally, the type of alleged misconduct has varied widely from incident to incident, and no sport seems immune, be it football, rowing, gymnastics, basketball or tennis to name some recently involved.   

Universities and even high school programs need competent and experienced legal counsel for guidance in these matters.  Case in point, last year, a lawsuit was filed against a high school, its baseball coaches, and the school district in Albuquerque, New Mexico by parents of a junior varsity player who claimed to have been subject to mental and physical abuse by the coaching staff.[2]  The parents initially raised their concerns with the varsity head coach, but the abuse continued and even worsened.  The abuse is said to have led the player to abandoning the sport. The attorneys at Whiteford Taylor & Preston have experience with such matters and have been called in to assist with preventative consultations, as no institution can proceed indifferently to the sizable monetary exposure, damage to public reputation and alumni loyalty that can result from missing the opportunity to put pro-active measures in place. 

It is important for institutions at all levels to have a program in place to address ethical misconduct.  The Society for Human Resource Management has promulgated six elements for an ethics policy and program.[3]  These elements include:  1) written standards of ethical conduct, 2) ethics training, 3) ethics resources, 4) a confidential reporting process, 5) evaluations of ethical conduct and 6) disciplinary procedures.[4]  Athletic departments, coaches, assistant coaches and trainers will all be less able to engage in unethical conduct if, through instructional sessions and the distribution of materials emphasizing ethical values, ethics are raised to the same importance as winning.  It will certainly be a bitter pill for some institutions, so dependent on athletics as a revenue engine, to abandon “winning at any cost,” as a department credo.

Clear policies alone do not deter or minimize future incidents of unethical conduct if no effective detection or enforcement process is put into place.   The NCAA has extensive rules, yet detection by a school still may not happen until years later by some inadvertent means as was with the case with the University of Louisville’s coaching staff misconduct exposed by Katrina Powell.[5]  Also, training must occur on both the standards and the process to enforce the standards.  In 2015, a high school coach won a settlement after being ousted following a questionable investigation by the school.[6]
An open and transparent culture is another key component to a strong ethics program.  Each program needs to overcome any culture deterring whistleblowing.   Retaliation is a very real concern for victims of ethical misconduct and may deter many victims from coming forward with official complaints.  It is no easy task for a student to risk his entire athletic future, as well as his free-tuition, at the risk of complaining about his coach.  It is also difficult for an assistant coach, hoping to move up, to whistle blow about the very people from whom he will seek a recommendation for the next possible opportunity.   No system of ethical expectations will work, unless the developed policies, and the enforcement of those policies, provide the strongest assurance of protection against retaliation.  

Finally, athletic departments are not the only ones susceptible to ethical concerns and should not ever be regarded as the ethical bad boys of any college.   The need to establish ethical expectations must be prioritized across the entire organization – from the researcher who may fudge the data, to the author who may lift ideas or to a member of the Board of Directors who fails to question business transactions with companies in which a director has an economic interest.

Whiteford Taylor & Preston attorneys regularly provide ethical guidance, both pro-active and investigatory, to all industries, to government, to for profits and not-for profits, and are capable of guiding athletic departments at universities, colleges and private schools as well.