Sports Law: Hockey Parents' Unsportsmanlike Conduct

If you are frustrated by your child’s youth sports experience, here is a spectacularly unproductive way to resolve your feelings: bring “illusory” claims of sexual harassment against the child’s youth hockey non-profit organization and the community-owned ice rink (the Tam O’Shanter Hockey Facility in Sylvania, Ohio). [1]  Take 35 depositions. Force yourself and the non-profit sports organization to ring up legal costs well into six figures. And then watch the trial and appellate courts throw the claims out after years of litigation.

But if the sexual harassment claims were “illusory,” what could have prompted the litigation? (Hint: it had nothing to do with sexual harassment.)

It was prompted by inadequate playing time for their ten-year-old child. In the third period.  Of a scrimmage. The appellate court explained:

The genesis of this matter lies in [the parents’] subjective perception that their ten-year-old son did not receive an adequate amount of playing time in a youth hockey scrimmage game. That perception on a seemingly innocuous subject inexplicably unleashed a series of events rooted in animus and retribution directed by appellants against appellees. […] Apparently, [the parents] suffered from the fervent belief that during the third period portion of the scrimmage game, their son received inadequate playing time in comparison to the other team members.

After the scrimmage in question, the parents sent emails inquiring about the playing time decisions.  The coach responded professionally and explained via email that they do their best to balance playing time and winning on the travel team.

The next day, the player’s mother emailed an official at the rink and complained of being sexually harassed by a coach the prior year. On the same day as his wife, the player’s father, an attorney,[2] sent a “belligerent” email alleging that the coach in question “saw somebody he wanted to score with and that’s all he saw.

The attorney-father followed up with “…a petulant, plainly threatening voicemail for another Sylvania official cautioning, ‘That's just the beginning. It's gonna be a long complaint. This is gonna get blown wayyy outta proportion in about 24 hours, if not today, if I can finish it, so you better call me back, uh Tony so, unless you really really want a bad bad situation.’"[3]

The parents followed through on their threats and sued the rink’s operators, the owner-city’s recreation department, the coaches, and other defendants. While there were eleven causes of action, the one with the most teeth was based on ORC Ann. 4112.02, which forbids discriminatory practices. Ultimately, the claims were thrown out by the trial court because they were comprised of “… unilateral allegations of ‘flirting,’ ‘leering,’ ‘smiling,’ ‘staring,’ ‘attempts to make eye contact,’ and so on.” In addition, the player’s mother had a history of issuing similar “dubious” claims against others.

In today’s post-Weinstein environment, allegations of sexual harassment present a very real threat for youth sports non-profits, facility owners and municipalities. Unlike the above matter, most claims will not be “illusory” in nature. If you are involved in youth sports, as a non-profit board member, a paid or volunteer coach or director, or as a facility owner there are pro-active steps you can take to protect your organization moving forward. These steps include background screens, regular training on sexual harassment, formalized investigations of allegations, and involving counsel before things escalate and a lawsuit is filed. In fact, if you have a leadership role within the organization, you may be personally responsible for the actions of your employees and volunteers. Do not wait until a problem arises to initiate these steps. At that point, it may be too late. Call your attorney now to implement training, policies and procedures that will protect your organization and its leadership.

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About the Author: Brendan Richard is an attorney who specializes in civil litigation including the defense of individuals and companies accused of wrongdoing. He is also a volunteer coach and the father of three boys who play rec league and travel sports, including hockey.

[1] See, Pittman v. Parillo, 2017-Ohio-1477.

[2] This attorney’s actions are not representative of the profession as a whole or any other attorneys who are also hockey parents.

[3] The court’s holding did not address any ethical issues raised by this attorney’s actions.

 

 

 

 

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