Coaching: Is Berating Players as Obsolete as the Single Wing Offense?

YouthFootballThe Mike Rice situation at Rutgers has many rethinking the boundaries in the coach-player relationship.  Although Rice’s methods involved an uncommon amount of physical contact, the verbal barbs that he threw at his players probably reminded many of their former coaches.  But have perspectives changed on what is considered tough coaching and what is inappropriate behavior?  And are the boundaries different when dealing with youth athletes rather than collegiate athletes?

A Connecticut Superior Court case provided the perspective of two judges (albeit before the Rice situation).  In Civitella v. Pop Warner Football, 2012 WL 4466146 (2012). the father of a Pop Warner Football player sued the league and the head coach of his son’s team, after the coach called his son various names and insulted him in front of his teammates, supposedly to motivate the young player.

The player’s father then sued the league, the head coach and two other individuals involved with the league, claiming slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The defendants filed a Motion to Strike (challenging the legal sufficiency of the claims in the Complaint), which successfully eliminated the plaintiff’s slander claims.  However, the Court (Radcliffe, J.), allowed the plaintiff’s claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress to proceed.  In her ruling, Judge Radcliffe addressed the coach’s behavior:

Although generations of high school and college football players can probably recall coaches who employed insensitive, insulting and what would now be politically incorrect language in an effort to motivate and inspire players, that approach is now as obsolete as the single wing offense.

Where once coaches may have enjoyed free rein, and used that latitude to employ equal opportunity insults, in this era of political correctness, speech codes on college campuses, and heightened sensitivity, comments which would have produced a shrug of the shoulders decades ago, may now be considered “outrageous” and unacceptable, without regard to motive or intent.

In the case at bar, it must not be forgotten that the language was employed in the presence of twelve-to fourteen-year-olds, who may not be as prepared to deal with the emotional effects or such berating, as more mature high school or college athletes.

Following Judge Radcliffe’s ruling, the defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (under which the defendant must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be decided by the court).  The Motion was heard by Judge Matasavage, who, I believe, played football at College of the Holy Cross.  Judge Matasavage found that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his son had suffered any emotional distress as he had not sought medical treatment of anger or depression and his friends, grades, activities and hobbies did not change.  Like Judge Radcliffe, Judge Matasavage went on to address the coach’s behavior:

Everyone, at one time or another, will experience the less pleasant side of a teacher, coach, official, supervisor, boss, colleague, or even a friend.  Those cases of embarrassment, humiliation, hurt feelings and other less debilitating, more transient forms of suffering…are not sufficient to impose liability.
In a good-natured footnote, Judge Matasavage also took issue with Judge Radcliffe’s reference of the single wing offense:
However, this court does differ substantially with Judge Radcliffe’s assertion: “that approach is now as obsolete as the single wing offense.”  The “wildcat offense,” currently in use by many professional and football college teams, is a direct offshoot from the single wing.
The defendant prevailed in this case because the plaintiff was unable to prove damages. Yet, perhaps the more interesting aspect of this case was how two judges viewed the behavior of the defendant youth football coach.
* My apologies for the formatting of this post – I’m having some technical difficulties with WordPress.

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