Sharon Love's lawsuit raises questions about coaches' responsibilities

Athletics leaders increasingly expected to police players

May 24, 2012|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Although a Charlottesville, Va., jury found one man — athlete George Huguely V — criminally responsible for the beating death of Yeardley Love, his former girlfriend and fellow lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, the young woman's mother wants to hold his coaches culpable, too.

Sharon Love, of Cockeysville, filed a $29.5 million civil suit this month against the state of Virginia, which operates the university; the school's athletic director; and two of its men's lacrosse coaches. It claims they failed in their duty to protect Love from Huguely, who had a history of alcohol abuse and violence toward her and others.

It was an unusual move, given that the coaches had no direct involvement in the incident, sports and labor lawyers said. But, they added, it could become more common as schools and parents increasingly look to team leaders to police their players' behavior on and off the field — particularly after recent high-profile hazing incidents, including a deadly episode involving band members at Florida A&M University.

"In the wake of those types of things, I think you're going to see colleges have a heightened consciousness of what their people are doing," said Michael J. Cozzillio, a professor at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pa. "They're going to make their coaches aware that in some circumstances, they could be responsible for the acts of their players."

Coaches, particularly at the college level, spend several hours a day with their team members. Parents look to them for explanations when their kids mess up, and some university administrators expect them to enforce strict codes of conduct, governing everything from criminal activity to social media use.

They're often contractual employees, who serve at the will of school administrators. And the consequences for their players' slipups — regardless of the coach's control over the athletes — can be severe, ranging from reprimand to termination.

Coaches have little "job security," Cozzillio said. "And yet we expect them to be surrogate parents, professional psychologists and teachers, whereas professors like me are not saddled with that kind of accountability."

The women's lacrosse coach at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., was fired last month after a school investigation into a 2011 hazing incident, even though she "had no direct role in planning, encouraging or participating" in the event, according to an F&M spokeswoman.

In 2006, Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler resigned under pressure after rape allegations against three players were made public, though the claims were later discredited and dropped. And 20 years before that, University of Maryland athletic director Dick Dull and basketball coach Lefty Driesell quit in the fallout from the cocaine death of Len Bias, a player who had recently been drafted by the Boston Celtics.

And some consider the fatal hazing of a drum major at Florida A&M, and the subsequent retirement this month of its band director, analogous in that it involves the leader of an extracurricular activity.

"You could say the big-time college coach has a greater responsibility because the whole university's fortunes could be riding on what this kid does," said Cozzillio.

The University of Virginia — which Love and Huguely attended — brought in more than $78 million from athletics in the fiscal year ending June 30, with basketball and football leading the way, according to data from the federal Office of Postsecondary Education. It also spent about $72 million on athletics, leaving a net gain of about $6 million.

Head coaches for men's teams at U. Va. earn an average salary of $536,000 — eight times higher than the nationwide average of $66,400. Women's head coaches bring in around $219,000, compared with the $36,100 average for the country.

Lacrosse, while not the biggest financial mover, is a significant part of the sports culture at the university, which enrolls many fans from prep schools in surrounding states. Both Love and Huguely played lacrosse growing up in Maryland — he at the Landon School in Bethesda and she at Notre Dame Prep in Towson — and each became integral members of the Virginia teams when they enrolled in 2006.

They began dating as sophomores and were part of a popular athletic elite on campus.

The day after Christmas that year, in 2007, Huguely was arrested in Florida for possessing alcohol as a minor. Less than a year later, he was arrested in Lexington, Va., for resisting arrest, public intoxication and threatening a female officer, according to police records.

University of Virginia officials, who declined to be interviewed for this article because of the pending lawsuit, have said that Huguely did not report the arrests to either administrators or coaches. The school has a long-standing rule that athletes must disclose such infractions to their team leaders within 24 hours.

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