More than ever before, coaches are aware of the risks and responsibilities they assume when they coach. These risks and responsibilities include those that are legal in nature. No matter what their certification level, career status, place or type of employment, or location of residence, coaches at all times have a legal obligation to provide a safe environment for participants, and to respect the individual rights of their athletes.
Speaking at the CPCA’s session on ethics at the recent National Coaches Seminar in Victoria, I compared the association’s new Coaching Code of Ethics to a “survival kit” which, if properly understood and acted upon, could form part of the coach’s personal risk management program. This is because the coach who follows the ethical guidelines laid out in the Code is not only meeting the ethical standards of the coaching profession, but is also safely exceeding the minimum legal standards which are required of coaches under the law.
For the last three years, we have traveled the country speaking to sport and recreation leaders about legal issues. Our purpose in doing this is twofold. First, we want to help people understand how the law expects them to behave. This usually involves explaining key legal principles such as negligence, liability, procedural fairness and discrimination. Once that information is conveyed, we try to give our audience practical tools to help them behave in such as way as to ensure that they meet this legal standard. This involves explaining the concepts and various techniques of personal risk management.
In this column, we plan to use this same two-part approach to help coaches practice their own personal risk management. We think this is important for many reasons: amateur sport is moving towards being more athlete-centred, coaching and coaches are under increased public scrutiny, athletes who are adversely affected by decisions of their coaches and sport organization appear to be more prepared to challenge these decisions, and Canadians in general are asserting their rights, often through costly legal action. All of these trends create risks for coaches and place them in an increasingly vulnerable position.
Before a coach can take effective steps to manage risks, he or she must have a basic understanding of some legal principles. Perhaps the most critical legal principle is the standard of care which the law imposes upon those who owe a duty to others (such as a coach owes towards participants). Sensible and objective, this standard says that a coach will be expected to exercise the same care as any reasonable coach would exercise in the same or similar circumstances. When a coach fails to achieve this standard, and harm or damage ensues, the coach’s behaviour may constitute negligence. Such a coach may also be held to be liable, or responsible, for the harm or loss which occurred as a result of his or her negligence.
The standard of care is a necessarily ambiguous concept since the standard is always influenced by the specific circumstances and potential risks of a situation. Thus, while the coach’s duty to act responsibly remains constant, the behaviour required to fulfill this duty will vary. This legal standard is influenced by written standards, unwritten standards (for example, common but undocumented practices in a profession or industry), previous case law, and plain common sense.
This notion of a legal standard is not limited to injury prevention and physical safety. It is also a requirement when coaches are involved in making decisions which affect athletes, either positively or negatively. Coaches have a legal duty to be fair – not just in the everyday sense of fairness, but in the legal sense. Our law stipulates quite clearly what legal fairness entails. Just as with safe treatment, when an individual does not receive fair treatment, he or she has legal recourse, and typically, the coach is going to be drawn into any resulting legal action.
The Coaching Code of Ethics is a powerful risk management guide because it is an essential part of the legal standard of care required of coaches. Certain parts of this Code directly address the legal obligations to provide safe treatment and fair treatment to participants in sport. For this reason alone, we urge all coaches to thoroughly familiarize themselves with the Code. Doing so will better prepare coaches for acting responsibly, prudently and fairly in any situation they face.
Future columns will elaborate on these and other issues relating to coaches’ personal risk management. For example, we’ll examine some actual legal cases and the practical lessons which can be learned from them. We’ll look at how coaches can ensure that decision-making procedures are fair, including ways that they can minimize their own bias in decisions. We’ll also examine the legal issues raised by topics such as employment contracts, insurance, harassment, discrimination, violence in sport, breaches of the criminal code, doping and discipline.
Originally published: Coaches Report (1994) Vol. 1(3)