Sports and Parents: Avoiding the parent trap when things go south

By Mark Donald of Mark Donald Law

It’s back to school.  And for many kids that also means getting involved in sports. As always, parents are on support duty.

As if driving your kid to a hockey rink at 4 a.m. wasn’t already enough, what happens when it all goes wrong and a young athlete and their parents find themselves at odds with the team, coaches, or the organization governing the sport?

The burden of meeting these challenges almost always falls on the parents. Parents know that they need to respond, but many are confounded by exactly how to go about it. Having dealt with these sorts of cases before, here are my best practices if you think the issues are going to escalate into acrimony or litigation.

  1. Stay calm: assume you are preparing to go before a judge. While very few of these conflicts are required to go to any kind of hearing, it is good practice to pretend that they will. By assuming everything that you say and do will go in front of a judge, parents can train themselves to act in a forceful but reasonable manner. Judges are not impressed by bombast, so it’s important to look at the situation calmly. No matter what you might think, threats, yelling, confrontations with your child’s coaches or “all-caps-copied-to-everybody” emails will only serve to make you and your child look unreasonable. On the other hand, a clearly-worded email to the proper decision-maker that explains your child’s complaint and the reason for it will not only calm the situation, it will also stop the decision-maker from dismissing you as another “crazy” hockey/soccer/basketball parent. Don’t waste precious time and goodwill yelling and shouting at officials. Keep calm, and carry on.
  2. Document everything politely: This is an important one. Any legal or administrative decision involving your child’s athletic career will be driven by the documents you have to prove your case.  From the moment you smell trouble, it is important to quickly and effectively collect all the relevant evidence. This includes taking notes of all meeting and phone calls that you have with any coaches, administrators etc. Better still, once that is done, it’s always a good idea to write a brief letter/email summarizing the call and then sending it to the relevant parties. i.e. “Dear Mr. X, I confirm that we just had a telephone call in which we discussed XYZ. I confirm that you stated ABC. ” Whether the decision-maker responds is not the point: you have just created a contemporaneous note, and this can be very useful in any proceeding down the line.
  3. Read the club’s rules, policies procedures etc.: The vast majority of sports clubs have codified rules for how disputes should be dealt with.  These procedures can run the gamut: from giving absolute discretion to the sports club to make a summary decision, to allowing for a full inquiry hearing before a panel. Usually, this is the procedure that you should follow before you think of taking your child’s sporting organization to a higher tribunal, or to court.
  4. But the rules aren’t everything: that said, just because a sport club’s regulations say that your child has no right to complain/appeal etc. doesn’t mean that this rule is lawful. It’s at this point that we get into the murky world of administrative law, and should answer two key questions:
  • First, is a court even able to review and alter the decisions of a private organization like your child’s sports club? This is a very complex analysis that requires a lawyer, but Ontario courts are increasingly willing to insert themselves into the dispute process and overrule a sports club’s decision. The key question that a court will ask is whether the club has a public function.Seen through that lens, a large province wide sporting association is likely to attract court oversight. But a smaller, tight-knit local organization might not; and
  • Second, if you feel that a decision made against your child was unfair, how much procedural fairness was your child entitled to? Again, this is a factually-specific question, but the general legal rule is that the more important that the decision is to your child (i.e. imagine being denied the opportunity to represent the country or win a championship), the more likely it is that your child will be entitled to robust procedures to make their case, such as a full hearing etc.
  1. Consider the cost: I tell each one of my clients the same thing when they hire me to handle a dispute: This is going to be longer, more expensive and more emotionally-draining than you think. Consider also that in any dispute with your child’s sports club, the child themselves will often be intimately involved.  Parents and their children alike, should therefore have no illusions about the disruptive influence that a dispute with a sports club can create.

It’s no easy task being a parent of a young athlete, and you may over-identify with the emotional ups-and-downs of your child’s sporting ambitions. But if you should find yourself in a conflict that may become litigious; stay calm, document everything, read the rules and consider the cost.

Disclaimer

The materials provided on this site are for information purposes only. These materials constitute general information relating to the practice of Mark Donald Law. They do not constitute legal advice or other professional advice and you may not rely on the contents of this website or blog as such.