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Guidelines for Keeping Coaches Out of Sexual Harassment Trouble

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that allegations of Title IX sexual harassment have had on sports in general and women’s sports in particular. Girls and women frequently stop participating or refuse to take advantage of opportunities in the first place due to concerns over sexual harassment. Coaches find their careers at an abrupt end—sometimes rightly, but other times due to misunderstandings that could have been avoided. This damages not only their future but entire sports programs and the reputation of an entire school.

Establishing policies on sexual harassment and encouraging reporting of incidents are essential first steps to addressing the problem, but education also plays an essential component. Specifically, everyone needs to understand the behaviors that constitute harassment and coaches need affirmative strategies they can use to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Industry professionals recommend that coaches, athletic trainers, officials, sports psychologists, and other professionals who work with athletes follow certain guidelines to stay out of sexual harassment trouble.

Understanding Sexual Harassment in the Legal Sense

Guidelines for appropriate behavior in sports should rest on a foundation of understanding what constitutes sexual harassment from a legal perspective. The definition is often tied to regulatory language or court interpretations. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the agency responsible for enforcement of Title IX anti-discrimination provisions in educational institutions, schools need to act to address two types of sex-based harassment—sexual harassment and gender-based harassment. 

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Examples include making unwelcome sexual advances, requesting sexual favors, or giving verbal, nonverbal, or physical cues of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is considered an extreme form of sexual harassment, but it is far from the only form. Sexual activity that one person believes to be consensual may be considered sexual violence if the other person involved is not legally capable of giving consent. Sexual violence also includes sexual acts involving any form of coercion.

Gender-based harassment is also a concern in sports. This involves unwelcome conduct that is based on a student’s sex, as well as harassment based on a student’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes.

Coaches and others who work with athletes are not always aware that even when a relationship occurs between consenting adults if it involves one person in a position of power over another, such as a coach and a team member, that relationship represents an abuse of power and therefore constitutes harassment. As the Women’s Sports Foundation explains, “Consensual and/or sexual relationships between coaches and athletes compromise the professional integrity of the coach and educational mission of athletics…. Voluntary consent by the athlete in such a relationship is also suspect, given the fundamentally unequal nature of the relationship. Such relationships can also cause a conflict of interest: how can a coach fairly judge an athlete with whom he or she is having sexual relations? Moreover…it places the coach in a position to favor or advance one athlete’s interest at the expense of others and implicitly makes obtaining benefits contingent on consensual and/or sexual favors.” 

Coaches can avoid this form of sexual harassment by absolutely avoiding any form of romantic relationship with an athlete in a program related to the one in which they serve. Policies should clearly describe a ban on such relationships, and the ban needs to be enforced at all levels.

Create a Culture of Zero-Tolerance

Coaches can go a long way toward avoiding sexual harassment problems when they take steps to firmly establish a culture of zero-tolerance of sexual and gender-based harassment. They should ensure that department policies and definitions are widely circulated and require members of the team and staff to read the policies and sign their acknowledgment. In addition, they need to be vocal when examples of wrongdoing come up in conversation so that all athletes and staff understand their position on inappropriate behavior.

Coaches need to speak up when someone makes an inappropriate remark. If the offensive remark is made as a “joke,” coaches need to make it clear that they see no humor. If the jokes continue, consequences need to be issued. Coaches and staff also need to understand when they need to report conduct to an educational institution’s Title IX Coordinator.

The department or area needs to have a system where anyone observing sex or gender-based harassment can file a complaint easily and anonymously. The goal is not to create an atmosphere where athletes and staff cringe in fear of retribution but rather an atmosphere where everyone feels supported and avoids sexual harassment because it is demeaning.

Avoiding the Appearance of Impropriety

Coaches and others who work with athletes sometimes get in trouble for sexual harassment without realizing they have done anything offensive or wrong. Simply calling a girl or woman “honey” can be considered demeaning and unwelcome and be viewed as harassment by some. Encourage everyone to avoid nicknames or terms of endearment. Even terms meant as a sign of respect, such as “Ma’am,” can be offensive to some people, so using regular names can often be the safest way to address others.

Be wary of humor. Making a joke about female drivers or men’s reluctance to ask for directions plays into gender stereotypes that some people find offensive, and it can create an atmosphere that could be perceived as hostile.

It is best to avoid saying anything about someone’s appearance—a compliment could be taken as an unwelcome advance, while criticism could be viewed as a form of gender-based harassment.  Avoid mentioning appearance not only to the person directly but also to anyone in the vicinity because it could create an unwelcome atmosphere. Discussing dating can also give signals about an atmosphere that should be avoided.

An Attorney Can Help Develop and Implement Policies to Avoid Sexual Harassment Allegations

Education is the best way to avoid situations that lead to allegations of harassment. It is important for coaches, their staff, and their athletes to understand conduct that is inappropriate and to know that it will not be tolerated. Coaches need to educate themselves and then ensure that the knowledge is passed down.

The team at Duffy Law is dedicated to protecting athletes and all students from sexual harassment and helping prevent potential harassment. If you have any questions about appropriate conduct or establishing solid anti-harassment policies for yourself, your staff, and your athletes, we would be happy to assist.  Just schedule a consultation at your convenience.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.