How to Investigate Alleged Coach Abuse of Student-Athletes, Part I: The Receipt of an Allegation

Buckner begins a series reviewing best practices to investigate alleged abuse by coaches and staff of student-athletes. In fact, colleges and universities are facing an increase in allegations involving sports team coaches’ abusive treatment of, or improper actions or behavior toward, student-athletes. During the prior five years, numerous colleges and universities have been the subject of lawsuits and other proceedings involving allegations of student-athletes being the target of improper behavior by athletics staff. The first article in this series covers best practices during the receipt of an allegation.

[Note: For purposes of this series, "student-athlete abuse" is defined as: (1) the non-sexual emotional, physical and mental mistreatment or harassment of student-athletes by coaches or other parties under the control or direction of coaches; (2) non-sexual hazing; or (3) the unsafe or improper supervision of athletically-related activities (e.g., practice drills). Further, in this series, "complainant" is defined as the student-athlete who alleges he or she has been subjected to student-athlete abuse; a "third-party complainant" (e.g., parents, teammates, employees) is a person who brings a complaint on behalf of a student-athlete who has allegedly been the subject of student-athlete abuse; and the "respondent" is a coach, support staff or other campus employee who allegedly abused, or directed another person to abuse, a student-athlete. Disclaimer: This Note is not intended to address allegations of a sexual nature (e.g., physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent) or any other charge that is required to be examined by an institution under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.]

When a campus or athletics administrator or designated staff receive a complaint or allegation of student-athlete abuse by a coach or other person under the control or direction of a coach (e.g., strength and conditioning staff), the institution’s immediate response is crucial.

First, the institution must determine if immediate action is necessary. The institution must decide to either: (1) immediately suspend or transfer the coach or staff member; or (2) wait for the results of an internal investigation before taking the most appropriate action. [Note: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines and federal case law suggest the complainant should be separated from the respondent until the completion of the investigation).] Further, because of the unique nature of the coach/staff and student-athlete relationship, it is best to refrain the respondent from communicating or interacting with the complainant and his or her close associates during the inquiry. If justified, a suspension should be as brief as possible, and kept under constant review to make sure it is not continuing unnecessarily. The institution must make it clear to the respondent that suspension is not a disciplinary action or an assumption of guilt. [Note: A suspension without pay is permitted only if the respondent’s contract of employment or state law allows an institution to do so. Unless there is a contractual or legal right to suspend an employee without pay, a suspension should always be on full pay and should be confirmed in writing.]

Second, the institution should avoid inconsistencies in its initial handling of employees and student-athletes. In fact, the institution should treat equally all coaches and staff (regardless of gender, longevity or other classification) charged with student-athlete abuse during the investigation. For example, it is not a good practice for an institution to suspend with pay a long-time male head football coach while suspending without pay a newly-hired female assistant women’s gymnastics coach over similar allegations.

Third, an institution should not pursue any action that can be perceived to be retaliatory conduct against the complainant. For example, the non-renewal of the athletic scholarship of the complainant could be construed to be retaliatory. Therefore, it is important for an institution to strictly adhere to, and document compliance with, all policies and protocols during the pendency of the internal investigation. Further, it is wise not to engage in any behavior or actions that can be used by the complainant to form a retaliation claim.


Contact Buckner attorney Michael Buckner (+1-954-941-1844 ext. 1; for more information on conducting sexual abuse investigations.