The NCAA has come out with a very clear position on sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes. They are wrong. They are a serious problem. And they must be “unambiguously and effectively prohibit[ed] to ensure that sport programs offer a safe and empowering experience for all student-athletes.”
This week, the NCAA is sending to its members a publication called “Staying in Bounds: A Model Policy to Prevent Inappropriate Relationships between Student-Athletes and Athletic Department Personnel,” which is co-authored by law professor Deborah Brake and author/journalist/athlete Mariah Burton Nelson.
Off the bat, the authors make clear that they are talking about all romantic, sexual, or “amorous” relationships between coaches (or other athletic department staff) and student-athletes, even if they are professed to be consensual. As the authors explain, there is a significant power differential between student-athletes and coaches (and athletic directors, and training staff), who spend intense and intimate time together. As such, coaches who cross that line necessarily abuse that power, and their actions constitute sexual abuse. It makes no difference that both parties are technically adults.
As a legal matter, many sexual relationships between coaches and athletes violate antidiscrimination laws such as Title IX, exposing schools to the risk of liability. The power and influence coaches have over their athletes may suggest the absence of consent, which is an element of sexual harassment under the law. And even in cases where the relationship appears “welcome,” the university could be at risk of liability under Title IX due to the negative effect the relationship is likely to have on the other members of the team. The authors suggest that prohibiting all sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes is a prudent step to managing the risk of liability.
But even setting aside concerns for liability, banning athlete-coach relationships is necessary as a matter of professional ethics. Other professions prohibit relationships between adults where a power difference obscures consent, such as the ethic that prohibits doctors and therapists from having sexual relationships with their patients. Still others guard against relationships that are detrimental to the moral of a group and its trust in those with power, as in the cases of judges bound by ethics to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” including sexual relations with those who appear before them, and members of the clergy who regard it unethical to have sexual relationships with a parishioner.
With these considerations in mind, the authors make the following recommendations to NCAA member institutions:
- Institutions should have free-standing policies addressing amorous relationships and not leave it to be covered by a general policy on sexual harassment.
- The athletics department should have its own policy on amorous relationships, rather than assume coverage under a university’s general policy on relationships between staff and students.
- The policy adopted should prohibit sexual or romantic relationships between all coaches and athletes, not just coaches and the athletes on their team.
- The policy should not create an exception for coaches who are married to an athlete.
- The ban should continue for at least two years after the athlete/coach relationship has ended.
- The policy should prohibit retaliation against anyone who reports a violation.
- The policy should provide for enforcement and discipline for coaches who violate it.
- The athletics department should educate coaches, staff, and student-athletes about the policy.
As the authors note, many view coach-athlete relationships as harmless and benign. For that reason, there is likely to be some initial resistance to the model policy. This publication is the first step toward challenging society’s complacency on this issue, and I’m hopeful the policy recommendations it contains will ultimately be embraced widely. Kudos to the NCAA for taking a strong stand against this demonstrated threat to athlete well-being and to the authors for presenting shedding such clear light on the issue.