Americans love sports. We love competition and displays of athleticism. Some of the most popular team sports in the United States–football, basketball, baseball/softball, ice hockey, and soccer–involve physical play, and most involve heavy, physical contact.
For many students, athletics and participation in team sports are an important part of their education. Often student-athletes and their parents consider athletics an avenue for college scholarships,1 and they dream of lucrative careers in professional sports.2 Unfortunately, the dreams of college scholarships and being drafted onto a professional sports team can be crushed when student-athletes engage in sports-related misconduct.
On September 4, 2015, at a high school football game in Marble Falls, Texas, two football players, who were from the visiting team of John Jay High School from San Antonio, Texas, tackled a referee during the game.3 Apparently, they targeted the referee at the urging of their coach, and now they face possible criminal charges. That same date, at a high school football game in Los Angeles, California, a football player from the home team, Salesian High School, apparently rubbed “Icy Hot” into the face of a player from the opposing team from La Canada High School.4
Closer to home, on September 11, 2015, at a high school football game in Linden, New Jersey, a player from the home team appears to have struck an opposing player from Immaculata High School in the head with the opposing player’s helmet.5 The student who committed the act was removed from the team, was suspended from school for ten days, and may face criminal charges. The Linden School District Superintendent of Schools is quoted as stating that he intends to make the incident a “teachable moment.”
Clearly, there is a lot school officials can learn and take away from the aforementioned incidents. First and foremost is the notion that no school is immune to these instances of student-athlete violence and misconduct. In order to try to prevent such incidents, experts recommend that coaches and administrators build a team culture of mutual respect and caring, in which members of the team take responsibility for each other.6 In addition, experts recommend that coaches jettison the “win at-all-cost” mentality in training their teams.7
By creating a culture which reinforces the positive attributes of sports, like teamwork, leadership, friendship, determination, and physical fitness, among others, school officials may help prevent instances of on-field violence. By creating a positive culture, there is a greater chance that student-athletes will refrain from intentionally injuring an opponent, game official, coach, or spectator.
Students also need to know that game officials and the school administration will hold them accountable for their conduct during athletic events. It is considered unsportsmanlike conduct under the rules of the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) for any student-athlete to strike or physically abuse an official, opposing coach, player or spectator, and such conduct will result in the athlete’s removal from the game and disqualification in a subsequent game(s).8
Aside from NJSIAA rules, most school boards have adopted an athletic code of conduct.9 A board’s athletic code of conduct will contain guidelines for the behavior to be observed at sporting events. The board can require all student-athletes to agree in writing to abide by the athletic code of conduct.10 The athletic code of conduct will permit the school board to ban the presence of any person, including a student-athlete, at a sports event, if the person:
(1) engages in verbal or physical threats or abuse aimed at any student, coach, official or parent, or (2) initiates a fight or scuffle with any student, coach, official, parent, or other person if the conduct occurs at or in connection with a school or community sponsored youth sports event.11
The board can also ban an offender from attending any subsequent school-sponsored youth sports event.12 Thus, an athletic code of conduct can be an excellent tool to discourage violent conduct by student-athletes.
In addition, every school board is required to adopt and enforce a code of student conduct.13 The code of student conduct must contain standards, policies, and procedures regarding student behavioral expectations on school grounds and away from school grounds, including a description of behaviors that will result in suspension or expulsion.14 Actions that can result in suspension or expulsion include conduct that constitutes a continuing danger to the physical well-being of other students, and physical assault upon another student.15 Certainly, a code of student conduct can identify violent or dangerous conduct that occurs during a sporting event as the type of behavior that can subject a student-athlete to suspension or expulsion.16
Student-athletes may also be subject to criminal charges for misconduct that occurs during a game. There are numerous instances in which young athletes have been charged with assault for physical violence against opposing players or game officials.17 Depending on the age of the student, s/he may be prosecuted as an adult, and depending on the circumstances, the punishment may include a prison term.18 Obviously, a criminal conviction (and even a juvenile adjudication) may end the dream of the athletic scholarship and, consequently, the dream of playing professional sports. Student-athletes should be informed that most colleges use criminal convictions and student-disciplinary history in making admission decisions,19 and that even if they are accepted into a college, they may not receive federal financial aid.20 The notion that they may be criminally prosecuted and lose out on playing in college may motivate student-athletes to avoid unnecessary violence.
Finally, there is the issue of civil liability for an injury a student-athlete causes to an opponent, a game official, a coach, or a spectator at a sporting event. Again, there are numerous instances when student-athletes and their parents have been sued for injuries the student-athlete caused in connection with his/her participation in a sporting event.21 Students may not realize the financial consequences of their actions to them and their parents.
In conclusion, school officials need to ensure that student-athletes are taught and trained in a positive team culture. They need to check to see whether their districts have an athletic code of conduct and, if not, whether the board would consider adopting one. They need to review their student code of conduct to determine whether it covers sporting events and identifies the types of conduct that could result in suspension or expulsion. Lastly, school officials need to make sure that student-athletes are aware that their actions on the field or on the court may have lifelong repercussions to them, and to anyone they may injure.
1 See Kelley Holland and John W. Schoen, Think Athletic Scholarships are a 'Holy Grail'? Think Again, CNBC, (October. 13, 2014), available on the Internet at http://www.cnbc.com/2014/10/13/think-athletic-scholarships-are-a-holy-grail-think-again.html.
2 The National Collegiate Athletic Association provides statistical data on its website about the probability of high school athletes who compete in college sports making into professional sports. The link to the data is: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/probability-competing-beyond-high-school.
3 See Tim Hill, Texas High School Football Players Who Tackled Referee Blame Coach, The Guardian (Sept. 18, 2015), available on the Internet at http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/18/texas-high-school-football-players-referee-blame-coach.
4 See Luke Kerr-Dineen, Video Emerges of High School Football Player Allegedly Smearing Icy Hot in Opponent’s Face, USA Today (Sept. 22, 2015), available on the Internet at http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/09/video-emerges-of-high-school-football-player-allegedly-smearing-icy-hot-in-opponents-face.
6 See Clark Power, Professor of Psychology, Notre Dame, Hazing, Violence and the Culture of High School Athletics: What Can Be Done?, Huffington Post (Oct. 15, 2014), available on the Internet at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/clark-power/hazing-violence-and-the-c_b_5987234.html.
7 See CBS News, "Friday Night Lights" Author Weighs In On Recent HS Football Violence, CBS News This Morning (September. 18, 2015), available in the Internet at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/spate-of-high-school-football-players-assault-on-referees/.
8 See 2015-2016 NJSIAA Handbook For Officials, Article IX, Sportsmanship, available on the Internet at http://www.njsiaa.org/sites/default/files/document/Officials%20Manual%202015.pdf.
10 See N.J.S.A. 5:17-2.
11 N.J.S.A. 5:17-1(a).
12 See N.J.S.A. 5:17-4.
13 See N.J.A.C. 6A:16–7.1. For additional information about codes of student conduct, refer to NJASA Administrative Guide, Student Discipline (Part One) (An Update), Vol. 39, No. 12 (December 2009).
14 See N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.1.
15 See N.J.S.A. 18A:37-2.
16 For additional information about due process procedures and grounds for student discipline, refer to NJASA Administrative Guide, Student Discipline (Part Three) (An Update), Vol. 42, No. 2 (February 2010).
17 See, e.g., Jesse Smithey, Coalfield Baseball Player Charged with Assault After Punch Hits Umpire, Knoxville News Sentinel (April 22, 2014), available on the Internet at http://www.knoxnews.com/news/coalfield-baseball-player-charged-with-assault; Citizen Staff Reporter, PCHS Football Player Charged with Assault, The Platte County Citizen (Nov. 20, 2013), available on the Internet at http://new.plattecountycitizen.com/wordpress/?p=5030; The Canadian Press, Hockey Player, 17, Charged in Alleged On-Ice Assault, CBC Sports (June 26, 2013) available on the Internet at http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/hockey-player-17-charged-in-alleged-on-ice-assault-1.1323578; CBC News, Hockey Player Charged with Assault, (Feb. 4, 2010), available on the Internet at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/hockey-player-charged-with-assault-1.878792.
18 See, e.g., State v. Williams, 2011 WL 43321 (App. Div. 2011) (high school student sentenced to prison term for “wilding” incident that eventually resulted in a homicide).
19 See Center for Community Alternatives, Criminal History Screening in College Admissions (January 2013), available on the Internet at http://www.communityalternatives.org/pdf/publications/Criminal-History-Screening-in-College-Admissions-AttorneyGuide-CCA-1-2013.pdf.
20 See United States Department of Education, Office of Federal Student Aid on the Internet at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/eligibility/criminal-convictions.
21 See, e.g., Corcoran v. High Point Reg. Sch. Dist., 2014 WL 7496990 (App.Div. 2015) (student injured during junior varsity field hockey practice sued fellow student who struck her with hockey stick); Saracino v. Toms River Reg. H.S., 2009 WL 3460680 (App.Div. 2009) (student injured in physical education class playing floor hockey sued fellow student who injured her); Egerter v. Amato, 2007 WL 1484541 (App.Div. 2007) (assistant track and field coach sued eight grader and his parents when he was struck in the head by a shot put during practice).