From Sport Courts to Law Courts – Are Lawsuits the Answer for Benched Players?

October 18, 2015


By Samantha Sayn-Wittgenstein – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Increasingly, more teenaged “benched athletes” and their families are looking to the courts when they are dissatisfied with playing time. Sport scholarships are increasing, and youth sports are becoming over-organized and professionalized. In turn, greater time and monetary investments from young athletes and their families are required. With this increased input, the demand for more output grows accordingly. If parents are spending thousands of dollars on their child’s athletics, they expect adequate development and exposure to collegiate scouts. When this development and exposure doesn’t occur, some parents are willing to spend thousands of dollars on lawsuits against coaches, leagues and associations.

More and more, participation in high school or collegiate sports is being viewed as a “career” or a high pressure job. In 2014, sport scholarships amounted to just over $15 million in Canada, a number which doubled in just seven years. The more money that is available in scholarships, the greater the pressure on athletes to perform and receive one of them. Furthermore, with youth sport organizations such as the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) in Canada or the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) in the US becoming more similar to professional sport associations, the proprietary interests of youth sports has grown.

The recent case of 16-year-old volleyball player Audrey Dimitrew who had high hopes to play in front of varsity and college scouts after making the team of the Chantilly Juniors in Virginia, but was benched and then sued the association, is an example of the pressure to impress. But can the courts interfere with the coach’s discretion to bench a player?

Another example is the William Munck case about an attorney, who sued the Dallas Lacrosse Academy for benching his son. It made national headlines as Munck filed the lawsuit under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act. This brings up the question whether or not it is appropriate for parents and players to bring their dissatisfaction and disagreement with a coach’s decision to the courtroom.

The answer by the courts continuously seems to be that playing time, or even mere participation in school athletics, is simply part of a multifaceted education, and not constitutionally protected. Further, courts are hesitant to get involved in the decisions of private organizations such as leagues and associations. Even if the courts were the right venue to address and vent about playing time, what are the remedies available to them?

The volleyball player’s case resulted in the court noting that it is a pity the athlete wasn’t able to play for a season, but that the law does not stipulate for judicial interference in such cases, while the Munck case reached a settlement in which the Dallas Lacrosse Academy agreed to a number of conditions including not to influence or interfere with the athlete’s playing time and scholarship opportunities. In the volleyball case it even threatened to shut down the whole league as it feared this case might open the floodgates to more parents suing.

Courts exist to adjudicate serious sporting disputes when teams or leagues may not be equipped to deal with such as discrimination against players of a specific ethnicity or gender. However, the volleyball and lacrosse cases were not about playing time being illegally restricted due to race or sex but was instead determined on factors such as skill, development and commitment.

Lawsuits like the ones Munck and Dimitrew produced threaten the existence of leagues and thus general access to sports for youth. It might be time to remember that sport is “played” and participants should have fun and that only a very small percentage of varsity or collegiate athletes will receive scholarships.

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