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November|December 2003
Count Me Out, Coach By Bruce Barcott
PCU By Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By Charles Geyh

Count Me Out, Coach

By Bruce Barcott

THE LOW POINT FOR THE CLATSKANIE HIGH SCHOOL TIGERS came two years ago, after a 64-49 loss to the Fighting Fishermen of Astoria High. Clatskanie's basketball team was mired in fourth place in northwestern Oregon's Cowapa League, and Coach Jeff Baughman didn't take the defeat well. After the game, he lit into the players, berating the boys for their lack of effort, though he knew they had been shaken by the highway-crash death of a popular English teacher two days earlier. "We've given you what we can," one player responded.

As it turned out, the Tigers would give no more that season. Fed up with what they saw as Baughman's bullying, the players drew up a petition and presented it to the coach. "As a team," they declared, "we no longer feel comfortable playing for [Baughman] as a Coach. He has made derogative remarks, made players uncomfortable playing for him, and is not leading the team in the right direction." Of the 12 players on the team, only two—a foreign exchange student and Baughman's own son—didn't sign. The other 10 accused their coach, a powerfully built man in his 40s, of persistently belittling and intimidating players, telling them they were "no fucking good" and emphasizing his points by throwing pens and chalk at them.

Baughman didn't resign or promise to change his ways. Instead, when the 10 players who signed the petition refused to board the bus for the next game in Rainier, the principal kicked them off the team. The junior varsity squad suited up and got creamed.
The suspended athletes have since graduated, but earlier this year nine of them formally accused Baughman and Clatskanie High officials (who declined to comment for this article) of violating their First Amendment rights. In a suit in federal court, they argue that the school retaliated against them for complaining about one of its employees—that it deprived them of the benefit of participating in interscholastic athletics for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech.

The Clatskanie case is part of one lawyer's rebellion against destructive coaching. "Coaches have historically been given extraordinary leeway to engage in conduct that by most standards would be considered abusive," said Michael Seidl, the Portland lawyer who brought the case. "And it's time to correct the problem."

Seidl is 45 and makes his living as a corporate litigator handling contracts and corporate shareholder disputes. But he's also a leading advocate for the rights of student athletes. His first case involved a high school basketball coach who slapped a player for missing a rebound. The student's parents complained, and the next year the coach got even, the parents believed, by cutting their son from the team. Seidl wasn't sure that he had a case. But he made a strong enough argument—based on assault and battery, not free speech—to squeeze a cash settlement out of the school district.

Many of us have dreamed of taking revenge against a tyrannical high school coach, but Seidl says he's "not a coach basher" who goes looking for these complaints. "I turn down a lot of parents who want to turn their child's lack of playing time into a civil suit," he said. But in the past eight years, Seidl has filed a half-dozen suits against Oregon coaches who he argues crossed the line between tough coaching and abuse. He's working to head off future suits by trying to persuade Oregon's high school sports governing organization to draw up guidelines about proper conduct for coaches.

Seidl has gotten involved in college sports, too: Seven years ago, he represented a University of Oregon women's basketball player who accused then-Head Coach Jody Runge of abusive behavior. The dispute was settled in an administrative hearing, but it helped spark a rebellion against Runge. She resigned in April 2001 after a university investigation revealed a pattern of belittling and abusive behavior toward U. of O. players and staff.

Yet the years of legal action and investigation that it took to bring down Runge point to the power wielded by a coach. Schools often act as if harsh coaches must be obeyed no matter what, says Jim Thompson, the executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which is affiliated with the Stanford University Athletic Department. "In a math classroom, we'd never tolerate a teacher humiliating kids with the idea that it will help them learn math better," he observed. "Whereas on the athletic field, it's like the commander has to be all-commanding." And competitive success will often excuse foul behavior. "[NFL broadcaster] John Madden once said, 'Winning is the best deodorant,' " Thompson noted, "and, unfortunately, it's true." A former lecturer at Stanford Business School, Thompson founded the Alliance five years ago to promote "double goal coaching"—coaching to win and to teach life lessons. Bobby Knight, the famously ill-tempered college basketball coach, isn't a member.

The ethic of obedience celebrated by Knight-style coaches leads schools to treat complaints by students and parents as mere bellyaching. Clatskanie High principal Michael Corley promised the Tigers and their parents that Coach Baughman's conduct would be investigated. After a four-day inquiry, the school district's acting superintendent affirmed the decision to kick the players off the team. She said nothing about the allegations of verbal abuse and intimidation against Baughman, who retained his job as a social studies teacher as well as his post as coach.

The Clatskanie conflict had more lasting repercussions for the students who signed the petition and their families. High school sports is deeply woven into the social and political fabric of this small (population 1,500) timber town: Team schedules hang in hair salons and coffee shops, and the high school wrestling coach is also the mayor. Once the school administration gave Baughman its backing, the rest of Clatskanie fell into line. The dismissed players and their parents felt shunned by their neighbors. Their phones rang with hostile calls. "Some of the ugliness of human nature came out," recalled Eric Lipke, a paper mill worker and the father of the team's former three-point specialist. (Parents of players involved in the suit agreed to speak on the condition that their children would not be quoted.)

The families' lawsuit has rekindled the bitterness. The school district's lawyer, Peter Mersereau, says the suit has no merit. The Supreme Court's landmark 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines declared that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," and courts have since ruled consistently that school authorities cannot penalize students for speech unless it's disruptive or obscene. But Mersereau argues that it was the students' refusal to board the team bus—their action, not their speech—that prompted their suspension. And membership on a basketball team isn't the kind of benefit that triggers First Amendment protection. "Cases like this usually involve termination of employment," said Mersereau. "Extracurricular sports are a privilege, not a right."

In the few student-athlete cases that haven't been settled out of court, judges have been loath to get involved if what's at issue is a coach's style rather than an accusation like discrimination or sexual misconduct. But in June, federal district court judge Ancer L. Haggerty denied the Clatskanie School District's motion for summary dismissal, which means that the case could proceed to trial. School officials, Haggerty said, will have to show that the Tigers' petition was likely to cause a disruption. As for whether the players were suspended because of speech (the petition) or action (refusing to board the bus)—that, the judge wrote, is an issue of fact to be decided at trial. Haggerty also noted that "the central role high school sports plays within the players' lives and within the community" meant that ending the students' athletic careers as punishment for speech would stifle their First Amendment rights.

The students and their parents were buoyed by Haggerty's ruling. "What we're challenging here is the notion of how we form boys," says Maureen Linn, the mother of the team's former center. "The kids don't want the players who come after them to suffer the same abuse." That sentiment still doesn't make the families who brought suit popular around town, though. As Maureen Linn spoke last summer, local realtors were lining up prospective buyers to view her house. Now that her son has graduated, she's moving out of Clatskanie.

Bruce Barcott, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, last wrote for Legal Affairs about genetically modified crops.

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