Coaches & Athletic Staff Accused of Title IX

Title IX was first implemented in 1972 by the U.S. Department of Education and is currently subject to guidance and enforcement by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The purpose was to address concerns related to sexual discrimination in educational environments. Complaints may be brought against students, faculty, staff, adjunct staff, coaches, and others linked with the academic institution.

Sexually-based discrimination may involve obstructing entry into programs, preventing someone from accessing benefits, or otherwise impeding participation in activities based on sex or gender. These acts may occur in areas such as admissions, scholarships, athletic participation, employment, and others. Title IX also prohibits acts of sexually-based violence such as rape or coercion that are committed against unwilling victims. Violations may involve sexual harassment made verbally or non-verbally and may include promoting false stereotypes or making improper slurs against those deemed as having a non-traditional gender identity or sexual orientation.

Upon receiving a complaint, the accusations are to be investigated equitably among the parties and free from any conflicts of interest. Federal guidelines prioritize affording each party their due process. Having a knowledgeable Title IX attorney is critical in protecting these rights.

Title IX and Allegations Coaches and Athletic Staff May Face

Title IX can impact coaches and athletic staff, be it athletic directors, athletic trainers, and others in related positions, in different capacities.  One common occurrence at colleges and universities across the United States is when a coach, athletic staff, or related employee is accused of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or other sexual impropriety. 

The above terms can be considered umbrella terms for the kinds of allegations those working in athletic departments can face.  Allegations can span the range of what would be considered inappropriate between school employees and student athletes and also potentially others whom employees may come into contact with during the course of their duties.  It is also important to understand that because of the expansive scope of Title IX, and although most cases will involve alleged conduct between employees and students in the school setting, allegations can also include conduct that took place off-campus.  

Although the potential list would be exhaustive, for example, sexual harassment can take the form of inappropriate comments made to student athletes, sexual misconduct can include inappropriate sexual contact with student athletes, and sexual improprieties can include almost any conduct that would be considered improper in the school setting between coaches and athletic staff, players and student athletes, and any other party who may be involved in such a claim.  

Sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are, of course, unacceptable in any setting, but not all complainants are seeking recourse for a legitimate concern or issue under Title IX.  Just as possible allegations are exhaustive in scope, it is important to understand that the reasons behind a false claim are also exhaustive in scope.  There are common themes that regrettably arise in Title IX cases against coaches and staff, however.  For example, a player may believe that he or she is not receiving enough playing time, or that a coach is showing favoritism towards other players.  In response, the player, as wrong as it would be, makes a claim that the coach did something improper.  The goal would be whatever recourse the player may be seeking with the potential support of the Title IX office. 

A player may also be experiencing academic difficulties, and in an effort to maintain his or her grades and academic standing, the player may file a false claim against a coach or other party with the hope being that the player will receive consideration from the school regarding the student's academic requirements. 

False Title IX claims are of course completely unacceptable, but they do commonly arise at colleges and universities across the United States.   The prospect of false claim can be of particular concern to coaches, athletic staff, and related employees, and people working in these have to be extremely mindful of the pitfalls that can arise in working with students often in relationships that are close in nature due to the dynamics involved between such employees and student athletes.

A related concern, whether a Title IX allegation is false or has potential merit, is that a school employee will most often be suspended pending the outcome of a Title IX investigation and case.  Although the college or university may refer to such a suspension as an "interim measure", such a suspension can last for months before any decision is made regarding the allegations themselves. 

Because of what is at stake and what is involved when a coach or athletic staff member is accused of a Title IX violation, it is critical to have an experienced attorney-advisor help navigate the process and mount the strongest possible defense.  

Title IX and Athletics at Post-Secondary Institutions

Title IX of course can impact coaches and athletic staff in matters beyond the traditional disciplinary concerns addressed above.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs student-athletes and staff including coaches, trainers, and others. The Title IX guidelines include an Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act that applies in three primary aspects of college athletics:

  • Athletic participation: Male and female athletes must be given equal access and opportunities for participation, but does not require that “identical sports” are offered
  • Scholarship eligibility: Male and female athletes are awarded scholarship funds that correspond to participation
  • Miscellaneous benefits and assistance: Male and female athletes receive equitable equipment, game and practice schedules, travel per diems, assistance from tutors, coaches, facilities, medical care, residency, meal plans, promotions, and recruitment.

The OCR seeks to ensure that schools are not under-representing either sex in collegiate athletics. They consider several factors when making this determination. Examples include whether there is “unmet interest” in any sport or if a team could be sustained and whether any “reasonable expectation of competition” exists for a team.

OCR Enforcement of Equality in Athletics

The U.S. Department of Education also strives to maintain equality in athletic participation for those with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act designated the OCR as responsible for guidance and enforcement. The majority of their efforts address K-12 activities; however, the “main principles of inclusion and equal access” are also applicable to post-secondary athletics.

Athletic Coaches and Staff as Responsible Employees

Title IX guidelines require that those classified as responsible employees of an institution should report potential incidents of sexually-oriented violence, harassment, discrimination, or other related misconduct. In college athletics, this means that coaches and other athletic staff are mandated to report such allegations to the Title IX Coordinator or another proper school official. Coaches or others that fail to report an incident may face penalties that could adversely affect their employment.

Information to be Communicated to Reporting Students

Responsible employees who are approached by a student that voices concern regarding a potential Title IX violation are encouraged to disclose certain information. The employee should reveal their requirement to report the incident to proper parties within the institution. The student should be informed that they may request that their identity remain confidential, which the administration will consider if feasible. Federal guidance supports honoring such requests for confidentiality when possible, principally when the complaint alleges acts of sexual violence.

The request for confidentiality must be evaluated with the understanding that denying these requests may deter other individuals from potentially making complaints. This must be considered concerning the school's obligation to fairly and equitably conduct a Title IX investigation for all parties. A respondent may be unable to sufficiently defend against allegations without knowing who the complainant is.  The responsible party should also provide information regarding available local resources for engaging in confidential discussions, such as counselors.

What Actions Constitute Potential Civil Liability for a School?

A school or district may be potentially liable for acts of sexually-related harassment, assault, and other violations that are committed by its employees. This requires that the school has knowledge of the potential violation and that the response was insufficient enough to be considered as deliberate indifference. This applies to employees that commit a violation during a time where they are executing their normal duties or responsibilities. A discriminatory act made by an employee may involve treating students differently, such as denying or preventing a student from participating in athletics based on their sex.

Potential Employee Retaliation

Federal guidelines strictly prohibit any acts of retaliation against complainants, witnesses, etc. These concerns should be presented in writing to all employees and contain the penalties that may be imposed for failing to adhere. A school's Title IX Coordinator or another designated official may take preventative interim measures as needed to protect parties such as implementing a no-contact order. 

What Rights or Protections are Afforded to Employee Respondents?

Federal guidance disproportionately focuses on the rights that schools must provide to students who are subject to Title IX actions, although employees that face allegations are entitled to the same fundamental protections. Examples include to be treated respectfully, with dignity, and to have all allegations disclosed in writing. Institutional administrators may overlook these due process rights in actions involving employees; therefore, all employees or staff members that face Title IX allegations are encouraged to speak with a seasoned Title IX lawyer.

Benefits of Retaining Legal Representation for Title IX Matters

Those employed in the many areas of an academic institution may face direct allegations of sexual misconduct that violate Title IX or be accused of improperly responding to complaints involving others. Federal guidelines are volatile and subject to modification and expansion and the school's administrators may also continue to develop and change the institution's internal procedures and processes. Faculty and staff who are subject to these actions must seek assistance from a lawyer that remains abreast of this unique area of practice.

Experienced Title IX Lawyer Represents Staff at Academic Institutions

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience navigating Title IX matters. He has a firm understanding of the potentially difficult ramifications that can result, including those that adversely impact your employment and reputation. He will protect your right to due process and pursue positive results. Please contact the office today at (888) 535-3686 for more information. 

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