In the brutally hot summer of 2001, three prominent athletes lost their lives on playing fields across the country. Football players Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings,' Rashidi Wheeler of Northwestern University, and Eraste Autin of the University Florida collapsed and died in summer practices. These practices are an annual rite that has preceded each football season since the sport was conceived approximately ninety years ago. While these deaths are tragic, they are certainly not uncommon. Since 1995, eighteen high school and collegiate football players have died while participating in practices or games. In America's litigious society, these deaths raise important questions regarding a coach's responsibility to the team and his players. Specifically, should a coach be held personally liable when his athlete is injured or dies while participating in an athletic event?
On its face, the behavior of such coaches seems barbaric and outrageous, but society seems to condone or ignore it because it forges football champions. In a strictly legal sense, where does society draw the line between forging champions and committing a tort? When does a coach's behavior constitute a tort and what standard should be applied? This article analyzes the liability of a coach for an athlete's injury or death while participating in an athletic event. In particular, the article describes the theory of negligence as applied to an athletic coach, as well as other theories of liability and legal defenses a coach may employ. The article concludes by applying these theories to the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Stringer, Wheeler, and Autin.
Thomas R. Hurst & James N. Knight, Coaches' Liability for Athletes' Injuries and Deaths, 13 Seton Hall J. Sport L. 27 (2003), available at http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/facultypub/337