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Staying on the Court and Out of Court: A Basketball Coach's Guide to Preventing Legal Issues

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First for the bad news: Like it or not, we live in a litigious society where lawsuits are more common than ever and so regardless of how much you love coaching, and how strong a bond you have with your players, you have to understand that you can't be too careful when it comes to protecting yourself in terms of legal issues.

A quick internet search shows that in recent years basketball, soccer, softball, baseball, and football coaches have all been sued after a player was injured in practice or during a game. The lawsuits aren't just limited to teams either.

Recently Virginia Tech University's Seth Greenberg was sued after an athlete in his summer basketball camp hit his head against an uncovered wall while diving for a loose ball and fractured his skull.

Now for the good news: For years now, the courts have consistently ruled that the athlete assumes all risk of common injury when he or she signs up to play. Regardless of the sport, coaches have not been found liable for injuries that athletes incur during the course of normal participation because the courts realize that there are inherent risks involved with athletics.

For example, the California Supreme Court has ruled that lawsuits can be brought against coaches only when their actions are "totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in teaching or coaching."

In other words, coaches are not expected to eliminate all risk of injury, but they can't increase the risks by acting recklessly or negligently if they want to stay out of court. Coaches have a duty to do everything possible and practical to keep all potential risks for injury down to a bare minimum.

The American Coaching Effectiveness Program (ACEP) of Champaign, Illinois, lists nine duties that a coach must fulfill to keep himself from ever being held liable for an injury to one of his athletes.

1. Provide a safe environment
2. Properly plan for the activity. 
3. Provide adequate and proper equipment. 
4. Match or equate athletes. 
5. Warn of inherent risks. 
6. Supervise the activity closely. 
7. Evaluate athletes for injury or incapacity. 
8. Know emergency procedures and first aid. 
9. Keep adequate records. 

Now if I could add just one more item to this list it would be to have a reliable witness present at all times when you are practicing or working out with your team since two sets of eyes are always better than one. A trained assistant coach (or coaches) would be ideal but I realize that is not always possible at the middle school and club levels where many coaches have to do nearly everything all by themselves.

At the youth level, there is almost always at least one parent in attendance at every single team function. (Reminder: a witness is a huge help to you as long as you are following all the established safety procedures and duties such as the ones listed above. However, if you are negligent or reckless, witnesses will observe that as well.)

Don't let the fear of lawsuits keep you from coaching and impacting the lives of young people. Just be careful, be safe, and always act in the best interest of your players and as long as you do those things you should have absolutely nothing to worry about.

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