For a youth league baseball coach, what could be worse than going 0-15? Ask Rodney Carroll. Soon after Carroll guided the Brunswick ( Ohio) Cobras to a winless season in 1999, a summons arrived, informing him that he was being sued for $2,000 by the father of his catcher. The complaint? Poor coaching. Carroll's incompetence, the suit claimed, cost the team a trip to a tournament in Florida. "I didn't understand it," says Carroll, 43, a street-maintenance worker who had volunteered for two years. "I wanted to be a coach just to help kids."
If that sounds like an isolated case of a litigious sports dad, it isn't. A surprising number of coaches are being taken to court for matters involving game plans, lineups, teaching and all the other things that they normally do. A group that studies sports-related lawsuits in North America, From the Gym to the Jury, reports that more than 1,300 suits involving high school and youth sports have been filed in the last five years, a jump of about 35% from the previous five-year period. Some cases deal with negligence and injury, but many are what lawyers call "personal feelings" suits—cases that, to a large degree, hinge on the notion that a coach who ticks off a parent or student is liable for financial damages.
"Ask a room full of coaches if they've been sued, or if they know anyone who's been sued," says Tim Flannery, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Everyone in the room would raise their hands."
Consider two recent cases: A Levittown (Pa.) High Softball player, upset primarily over a pitching technique her coach taught her, is seeking $700,000. She says her chances for a college scholarship were compromised because the pitching method is technically illegal. Then there are the two baton twirlers who were cut from the majorettes program at North Haven High in Connecticut. Their mothers hired a lawyer to argue that, under the 14th Amendment, being a majorette is a noncompetitive activity that shouldn't exclude anyone. "We're just protecting our rights," says Dolores Tata, one of the complainants. Both cases are pending, as legal fees mount.
Most anticoach suits follow a course similar to that of the mother in Rimouski, Que., who took legal action after her 14-year-old son was benched during what she says was a "critical" hockey game. She sought $1,000 in damages to cover league registration, hockey classes and, of course, mental distress. She lost "Most cases are won by coaches," says Gil Fried, a law professor at the University of New Haven. "Courts conclude this is a game and the coach has authority."
Yet even with the statistics in the coaches' favor and even though only 5% to 7% of all suits go to trial (about 30% of sports suits settle out of court), the litigation almost always has an impact. Consider the case of Blake Chong, basketball coach at Logan High in Union City, Calif., who in 2001 was named in a $1.5 million suit filed by a father whose son had been relegated to the junior varsity. The father sued the school district for his son's potential lost earnings and sought Chong's dismissal. Nine months into the case a judge threw it out. Still, "it took up my time every single day," says Chong. "It takes a toll on you, mentally and physically."
Often there's a financial cost as well. According to Sadler & Co., which insures 4,000 sports organizations nationwide, the number of coaches buying insurance against claims such as discrimination and economic damage has doubled since 1997. Many coaches, even if they can afford bigger insurance bills, are following the lead of Rodney Carroll. After a judge threw out that Ohio father's claim against him, Carroll took a look at his situation—and quit coaching. Want to talk trends in youth sports? With so many parents suing, an exodus of coaches could easily be the next big thing.