Sports coaches at universities across the United States provoke strong reactions among fans of collegiate athletics. Especially for coaches of the top collegiate teams, there are few lukewarm feelings, and the coaches are often at the center of controversy for their choices both on and off the field or court. Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky might immediately spring to mind for their roles in the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, but coaches can also be held responsible for a wide range of less sensationalistic problems. Issues such as inappropriate behavior by players or bending recruitment rules are under the coaches’ purview, and they are often considered ultimately responsible for any infractions.
Oregon’s lawmakers are now considering just how far that responsibility should extend. As The Register-Guardreports, Oregon’s House is currently considering a proposal put forth by Rep. Brent Barton (D-Oregon City), to make athletic coaches at Oregon’s public universities financially responsible for “major violations” of the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Under the current system, when the NCAA finds that a college or university team has breached its rules, it imposes some sort of penalty on the institution. While the penalties can include being put ‘on probation’ (or in extreme cases, being banned from participating in the sport for up to two years), monetary fines are a common component of the NCAA’s punishments. The school itself is responsible for the fine; any one individual, however culpable, is not normally liable to pay the NCAA penalty. Under Barton’s House Bill 3524, however, Oregon’s public universities subject to an NCAA fine could recover their money from a coach if the violation was a “major” one and if the coach “intentionally or recklessly” broke the rules.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proposed bill has caused a fair amount of its own controversy. While Rep. Barton argues that it is a good way to keep coaches accountable for their actions – because the short-term benefits of bending or breaking NCAA rules are high for coaches while the long-term costs are borne by the university, not the individual coaches – not all of his colleagues are convinced.
Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene), questions whether the bill will serve any purpose at all, given that it only applies when a coach is found to have acted “intentionally or recklessly,” in which case they would be liable under existing tort law anyway. In addition, since it is difficult to prove that a coach acted “intentionally or recklessly” – such a finding is usually beyond the scope of the NCAA’s investigations, for example – it is questionable how effective the bill would be.The University of Oregon and Oregon State University are also critical of the proposed bill, noting that having such a law on the books would make it more difficult for them to hire good coaches for their sports programs. They also object to the fact that this bill singles out coaches and targets them apart from any other employee group.
Barton’s proposed bill will undoubtedly continue to be controversial as Oregon’s legislators wrestle with its implications. Already, several amendments have been made to the original bill, including a provision that would have made coaches retroactively liable for past violations as well as a clarification regarding what kind of compensation the university could seek from a coach (fines, legal costs, and the value of lost scholarships). It will be interesting to see if Oregon’s legislators do in fact decide to hold coaches financially responsible for their mistakes, and if so, to what extent.
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