Case commentaries: coaches and players

On April 2, 2003, the SFU Human Rights Officer was invited to offer a one-day seminar to Olympic level coaches who were associated with Sport B.C. The following case commentaries were developed for that seminar. They are offered here for educational purposes.

Please remember that each case of alleged harassment is different, the facts determine the outcome and fairness to both parties, the Complainant and the Respondent, is essential.

If you have comments or questions about this material, please email


  1. George is the head coach of a university women’s basketball team ranked #2 in the country, but how does he treat his players?
  2. Julie is a women’s junior professional golf coach who is romantically interested in a player.
  3. A female player complains that her coach is stalking her. 
  4. John is the head coach of a men’s basketball team; one of his players, Steve, is gay. 
  5. You observe the coach for the opposing team abusing one of her players; what do you do? 

Case 1

George is the head coach of a university women’s basketball team ranked #2 in the country. George has always been known as a bit of a tough nut–he demands more than other coaches and he usually gets what he asks for.

His team is about to play game three of the division play-offs. The pressure is on because each team has won one game. Several of the players have complained about the way George deals with them. They find his behaviour to be insulting, sexist and inappropriate. He makes fun of some of the players’ weight. There is one player in particular that George picks on. At an awards banquet, he approaches the woman after she goes to the dessert table to pick up several small samples of the desserts. George takes the plate from her and says to everyone within earshot, "It’s for the good of whomever she lands on if she should fall during a game–she’s so fat, she’ll KILL somebody!" The player, Jennifer, is very embarrassed and leaves the banquet in tears.

Is this harassment?

Yes, this is an example of personal or perhaps gender-based harassment. Here, George has no bona fide justification for dealing with a player in a public forum in a fashion that can only be described as humiliating and offensive. If George had concerns about one of his players' weight and/or the composition of her diet, a legitimate concern for a coach, it should have been raised in a serious and confidential manner and not in a way that is likely to cause shame and embarrassment for his player. Mocking someone over whom one has power is never appropriate. In fact, it is the very antithesis of professionalism. If this is the way George treats his players, one wonders whether he is suitable coaching material.

George thinks that Jennifer is not doing her best. Several days after the banquet episode, Jennifer apparently twists her knee during a practice. She falls to the floor and cries out in pain. George thinks she is overreacting, so he tells her to get off the court, calls in a replacement and ignores her for the rest of the practice. When the team is de-briefing after the practice, Jennifer has a question. She puts her hand up, but George refuses to acknowledge her. Jennifer becomes quite exasperated. On the way to the lockers after the practice, she asks George what his problem is. Jennifer is speechless when, in front of all of the other players, George says, "Look, why don’t you fuck off–you’re nothing but a waste of my god-damned time."

Another player, Anne, has similar complaints about George. Anne says that when she messed up during an important game, George told her to carry the other players’ luggage to the bus. When one of Anne’s friends stepped in to help, George told her to mind her own business.

  • Does George’s behaviour constitute harassment?
  • What facts would you need to obtain in order to reach this conclusion?
  • If this is harassment, what would be an appropriate remedy in this case?

In not checking his player’s condition, George could be engaging in dangerous behaviour that could attract liability for his employer or club. George may believe that the player is acting as if she is hurt because she has a need for attention, nevertheless, the fact remains that he failed to make that determination because he did not stop the game to check it out. If he had checked on her condition and concluded that she was overreacting to get attention, the best course of action would probably be to address the matter with her in an off-court, private conversation. Even though she may tend to be the type of player who has a tendency to overreact, the coach is not absolved from following up.

By not responding to Jennifer’s question, a pattern of behaviour is beginning to emerge in which George is directing behaviour a her which:

  • he should know is unwelcome;
  • is persistent;
  • serves to create a hostile environment.

Therefore, all of the elements of harassment (as defined in human rights case law and in most workplace and University policies) are present. George has exposed his employer, and himself, to liability under human rights legislation by acting in this manner. Because all of the behaviour has occurred in public view (mocking her at the awards banquet, ignoring her when she fell, ignoring her question and cursing at her) it will be easier to prove. In summary, George’s conduct falls squarely into the realm of illegal harassment.

However, George’s behaviour towards Anne is not (yet) indicative of harassment because the behaviour (asking her to carry other players’ luggage) occurred only once. If the behaviour persists, it may well meet the standards for illegal harassment. At this stage, it is merely indicative of bad coaching.

For behaviour to be classified as harassment, it usually must be repetitive as regards a specific complainant. It is an absurd example, but behaviour that is repeated 25 times against 25 different people is not harassment. For one of those 25 people to claim harassment, it would be necessary for the behaviour aimed at that person to be repetitious.

Case 2

Julie (39) is a women’s junior professional golf coach. She operates a spring training course for young women who aspire to be professional golfers. The students are housed in a residential facility close to the golf course.

At the end of the first day of instruction, Julie approaches Pam (18), one of the students, and asks her if she would like a ride back to the residence. It is raining outside, so Pam accepts. While they are en route, Julie asks Pam if she would like to go for a beer at a nearby tavern. Seeing nothing wrong with having a friendly beer with her coach, Pam accepts the invitation.

When they are on their second beer, Julie asks Pam if she has a "friend." Pam indicates that she and her lesbian lover have just separated.

Several weeks later, Julie is in the locker room with Raylene, another student. Raylene says, "Guess who has a crush on you," and identifies Pam as the student who is developing romantic feelings for the coach. That night, Julie calls Pam to invite her out for dinner.

Did the coach cross the line?

When questions are asked about whether a certain individual "crossed the line" it is critical to ask "when and how?" The coaches who participated in my seminar coached adult athletes. They said it is commonplace to join a player or a group of players for a beer after a game or practice. They do, however, draw the line at personal (read sexual) involvement with their athletes. That said, even if it is either unethical or a professional conflict of interest to maintain a sexual relationship with an individual one is coaching or teaching, if the relationship is consensual and the athlete is an adult, the behaviour should not be classified as harassment because it cannot be said that it is "unwelcome" – a necessary ingredient of harassment.

There seemed to be consensus among the coaches I spoke to that Julie did cross the line when she invited Pam out for dinner, after having been told that Pam had a crush on her. However, the nature of line crossing was not classifiable as harassment, but rather, was classifiable as unprofessional behaviour because of the impact the relationship could have on the other golf students.

There are two actions that are appropriate if a coach becomes aware that a player is developing romantic feelings for him/her. What are they?

In my view, they are:

  1. Ask to speak in private to the student or athlete. Inquire as to whether the information is true. Inform the player that the feelings are not mutual and in any case, that it would constitute a serious breach of duty to develop a personal relationship with a player or student.


  2. If you are not comfortable addressing it directly, act in a manner so as to disabuse the student or athlete of the notion that any kind of personal relationship is possible. Act in an impeccably fair and forthright manner to send the message that no personal relationship will ever develop because the professional is paramount over the personal.

In the course of discussing this case, the coaches asked for my opinion about whether a person who is in a conflict of interest and who wishes to step aside because of it, is required to identify why the conflict exists. In other words, is it necessary to be specific about the nature of the relationship that caused the conflict? I say it is less important to say why a conflict of interest has arisen than it is to simply identify something as constituting a real or apparent conflict. Also, it is worth mentioning that conflict of interest can arise for a variety of reasons, not just sexual ones. For example, if a professor had a nasty relationship with a neighbour and the neighbour’s daughter enrolled in a class taught by the professor, the professor might want to remove him/herself from the situation because of a concern that conflict of interest could be alleged. It is not, I would submit, important to identify the source or reason for the conflict – one need only identify that its presence is possible. The existence of personal relationships, regardless of their nature, raises the spectre of conflict of interest. I believe it is always preferable to remove one’s self from the activity before rather than after questions are raised.

Case 3

You have been asked to investigate this case in which a female player is complaining that her coach is stalking her.

She said:

  1. Her coach stands outside her apartment at night peering into her windows.
  2. Yesterday, he followed her to the bus stop. They had an argument and he twisted her arm. The bus came and he followed her onto the bus.
  3. She took a window seat about mid-way down the aisle; he sat beside her, blocking her in.
  4. She got to the mall and he followed her into the mall. She had lunch in the Food Court and he sat beside her, staring at her. They did not speak during lunch.
  5. She left the mall to go home and he followed her.
  6. When they got to her apartment, she used her card to go in the main door and he brushed past her. She told him that her roommate, another player, was at home, so he left.

What information is critical in proving / disproving this complaint?

He said:

  1. He did take the bus yesterday because his car was in the shop for repairs.
  2. He went to the mall with her because she owed him money for equipment he was able to purchase for her because he gets a significant discount from a national supplier.
  3. She withdrew the money ($260.00) from the bank machine. He kept $100.00 and deposited the remaining amount ($160.00) in his bank.
  4. They ate together at the Food Court.
  5. He walked her home because he lives four blocks past her place.
  6. He has never waited outside her building trying to see her.

How would you investigate this case?

I dealt with a case similar to this several years ago. All that was truly clear was that both parties were not telling the truth. The matter of why they were both attempting to mislead me was completely unknown. The only thing I knew for certain about this case was that it was necessary to refer it to the police. When allegations against an individual involve stalking-like behaviour, I decline to act on the matter until the Complainant has obtained a file number from local police. I have no way to investigate a complaint such as is described here, but the police do have the ability and training to follow up on allegations such as these.

As to the question, "What information is critical in proving/disproving this case, these are the questions I would ask the complainant:

  1. Why did you get on a bus with someone who had just physically assaulted you?
  2. What, if anything, did you tell the bus driver?
  3. Did you recognize anyone you knew at the bus stop or in the Food Court?
  4. Why did you leave the safety of the mall, which has its own security force, to go outside when you knew you were being followed?
  5. Does your roommate have any direct knowledge of this case? By "direct" I exclude anything you may have told your roommate and include what she saw or heard herself.

As to the information I would seek from him, it is as follows:

  1. Where did you take your car for repairs?
  2. Produce the deposit slip showing that you deposited $160.00 at the relevant time.
  3. What is your account number with the national supplier? Produce the invoice for the goods you ordered for the athlete.
  4. Confirm your home address and the length of time you have lived at that location.

It will be obvious to readers that much of the foregoing information is incidental in that it will not prove or disprove the allegations. That said, credibility is an important factor in harassment complaints. In this case, the Complainant said that there was absolutely no reason for the Respondent to follow her to the mall. However, the Respondent could not only provide a reason for "following" her, he could also provide proof that he ordered the equipment from a national supplier, and he produced copies of emails in which she asked him to order it. As well, he produced the bank deposit receipt and a copy of the invoice, which contained the date on which the goods were received and the amount owing.

When I confronted the Complainant about the fact that the complaint was misleading in that there was proof of why the Respondent followed her to the mall, she simply shrugged her shoulders. Since I could not determine what motivated the Complainant to initiate what was at least a partially untrue complaint; I asked both parties to agree to enter into a mutual no contact agreement.

Case 4

John is the head coach of a men’s basketball team. One of his players, Steve, is gay.

Some of the other players tell John that they are uncomfortable in the locker room with Steve. They don’t think it is appropriate getting undressed and showering in front of him. The players ask John to assign separate shower and change room space to Steve.

Would it be wise for John to agree to assign separate space to Steve?

In Canadian law, "discrimination" is defined as intentional or unintentional differential treatment for which there is no bona fide and reasonable justification when such behaviour imposes burdens, obligations or disadvantages on specific individuals or groups as defined by the Human Rights Code. Imposing an obligation on Steve simply because of his sexual orientation is discriminatory. If the players are uncomfortable getting undressed in front of Steve, they should stop doing it. Their lack of comfort should not serve to impose a burden on a third party.

It would be a different matter if Steve were engaging in behaviour that was disruptive. Under such circumstances, John could properly raise behavioural issues with Steve.

Just to break the tension before important games, some of the players joke around behind Steve’s back. Jack, the team captain, pretends to hold a purse and walks with mincing steps. When Steve turns around and catches him, Jack shouts, "Shut up and kiss me, you fool!" Everyone, the coach included, bursts out laughing.

Is this harassment?

Yes, this is behaviour that is likely to lead to harassment because it is unwelcome and it has a negative effect on the environment. The coach would be well advised to intervene as soon as possible, advising Jack that his behaviour is out of line.

What are the coach’s responsibilities in this kind of situation?

The coach should also recognize that he might be dealing with a systemic problem of homophobia. Here, the team captain (obviously) feels that it is okay to mock and taunt an individual on his team because of the player’s sexual orientation. Perhaps a bit of education is in order.

Three of the players approach the coach to say they are uncomfortable when Steve is in the sauna with them. The players normally take their steam baths in the nude; however, during the steam baths Steve does stretching exercises which the other players find sexually suggestive.

What, if anything, should the coach do to resolve this situation?

The question, "What, if anything, should the coach do to resolve this situation?" depends in significant measure on what is considered appropriate behaviour when a group of men are naked together in a sauna. If other people do stretching exercises and nobody seems bothered by it, it would be inappropriate to require Steve to comply with a standard of behaviour that is not required of others. Moreover, there is nothing in this situation which suggests that Steve is acting in a sexual manner, nor is it evident that he is interfering in any way with others in the sauna. I would recommend no action in this situation.

Case 5

You are a coach accompanying your team to a playoff game in another province. You are walking through the change area for the other team and you observe the coach for the opposing team screaming at one of her players. The coach asks the player a question and when the player replies, "I don’t know," the coach slams the player into the lockers.

Do you have a duty to intervene? Do you have a duty to report? What is the right thing to do?

The behaviour described in this scenario is criminal in nature and constitutes an assault on the player. If the player is under 18, provincial child welfare laws require anyone witnessing child abuse to report it to authorities (either the police or child welfare). Nobody is exempt from the duty to report.

As to whether or not to intervene, that depends on how comfortable you are in doing so. If you are an imposing individual with the requisite body strength and you feel capable of handling anything that is likely to occur, by all means, intervene in a non-violent manner. However, if you feel that intervening might put you in the line of fire and is not likely to resolve the situation, it might be best to go for help.


Please remember that each case of alleged harassment is different, the facts determine the outcome and fairness to both parties, the Complainant and the Respondent, is essential.