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Sharon Love's lawsuit raises questions about coaches' responsibilities

Although a Charlottesville, Va., jury found one man — athlete George Huguely V — criminally responsible for the beating death of Yeardley Love, his former girlfriend and fellow lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, the young woman's mother wants to hold his coaches culpable, too.

Sharon Love, of Cockeysville, filed a $29.5 million civil suit this month against the state of Virginia, which operates the university; the school's athletic director; and two of its men's lacrosse coaches. It claims they failed in their duty to protect Love from Huguely, who had a history of alcohol abuse and violence toward her and others.

It was an unusual move, given that the coaches had no direct involvement in the incident, sports and labor lawyers said. But, they added, it could become more common as schools and parents increasingly look to team leaders to police their players' behavior on and off the field — particularly after recent high-profile hazing incidents, including a deadly episode involving band members at Florida A&M University.

"In the wake of those types of things, I think you're going to see colleges have a heightened consciousness of what their people are doing," said Michael J. Cozzillio, a professor at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pa. "They're going to make their coaches aware that in some circumstances, they could be responsible for the acts of their players."

Coaches, particularly at the college level, spend several hours a day with their team members. Parents look to them for explanations when their kids mess up, and some university administrators expect them to enforce strict codes of conduct, governing everything from criminal activity to social media use.

They're often contractual employees, who serve at the will of school administrators. And the consequences for their players' slipups — regardless of the coach's control over the athletes — can be severe, ranging from reprimand to termination.

Coaches have little "job security," Cozzillio said. "And yet we expect them to be surrogate parents, professional psychologists and teachers, whereas professors like me are not saddled with that kind of accountability."

The women's lacrosse coach at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., was fired last month after a school investigation into a 2011 hazing incident, even though she "had no direct role in planning, encouraging or participating" in the event, according to an F&M spokeswoman.

In 2006, Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler resigned under pressure after rape allegations against three players were made public, though the claims were later discredited and dropped. And 20 years before that, University of Maryland athletic director Dick Dull and basketball coach Lefty Driesell quit in the fallout from the cocaine death of Len Bias, a player who had recently been drafted by the Boston Celtics.

And some consider the fatal hazing of a drum major at Florida A&M, and the subsequent retirement this month of its band director, analogous in that it involves the leader of an extracurricular activity.

"You could say the big-time college coach has a greater responsibility because the whole university's fortunes could be riding on what this kid does," said Cozzillio.

The University of Virginia — which Love and Huguely attended — brought in more than $78 million from athletics in the fiscal year ending June 30, with basketball and football leading the way, according to data from the federal Office of Postsecondary Education. It also spent about $72 million on athletics, leaving a net gain of about $6 million.

Head coaches for men's teams at U. Va. earn an average salary of $536,000 — eight times higher than the nationwide average of $66,400. Women's head coaches bring in around $219,000, compared with the $36,100 average for the country.

Lacrosse, while not the biggest financial mover, is a significant part of the sports culture at the university, which enrolls many fans from prep schools in surrounding states. Both Love and Huguely played lacrosse growing up in Maryland — he at the Landon School in Bethesda and she at Notre Dame Prep in Towson — and each became integral members of the Virginia teams when they enrolled in 2006.

They began dating as sophomores and were part of a popular athletic elite on campus.

The day after Christmas that year, in 2007, Huguely was arrested in Florida for possessing alcohol as a minor. Less than a year later, he was arrested in Lexington, Va., for resisting arrest, public intoxication and threatening a female officer, according to police records.

University of Virginia officials, who declined to be interviewed for this article because of the pending lawsuit, have said that Huguely did not report the arrests to either administrators or coaches. The school has a long-standing rule that athletes must disclose such infractions to their team leaders within 24 hours.

In an interview this year, Dean of Students Allen Groves described the reporting policy as "very passive," meaning it was incumbent on the student to take the action. Now, all students are prompted by computer when they log in for the fall semester to reveal whether they've been arrested.

In the aftermath of Yeardley Love's death, the university also launched a broad outreach effort that looked at the "bystander effect," Groves said. It focused on ways to "better engage the student body on being more willing to put their hands up if they saw something." It's unclear whether coaches were included in the training.

Sharon Love's lawsuit states that coaches and administrators did nothing to discipline or treat Huguely after the arrests and subsequent convictions. It also points out that a "sparingly played" lacrosse athlete — unlike Huguely, who was a key player — was suspended from the team after being arrested for drinking and driving, though the document doesn't explain how coaches found out about the infraction.

Elliott M. Buckner, Sharon Love's lawyer, declined to comment on any aspect of the 15-page lawsuit, including why women's lacrosse coaches weren't included. The document was filed May in Virginia against the state, athletic director Craig Littlepage, head men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia and associate head coach Marc Van Arsdale.

It outlines escalating alcohol abuse and various instances of violence involving Huguely, including accusations that he choked Love, and once gave a teammate a concussion while drunk and angry that the young man "had been seen with" Love. That incident was brought to the attention of coaches, who "talked to both players," the lawsuit said.

"It was well known to the players and coaches on the UVA men's and women's lacrosse teams that Huguely's alcohol abuse and erratic, aggressive behavior was increasingly getting out of control," the civil suit claims, "especially his obsession with Love and his aggressiveness and threats to Love."

In late April, a few months after Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in her daughter's death, Sharon Love filed a $29.5 million civil lawsuit against him, followed by the lawsuit against the state and coaches a week later.

Brian J. Gottstein, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office, said state lawyers plan to "vigorously defend" the coaches.

"While we certainly recognize the terrible loss suffered by the Love family," Gottstein said in an emailed statement, "that loss was not caused by the [state] or anyone employed at the University of Virginia."

Timothy L. Epstein, a Chicago-based sports lawyer, said it would be a "tough case" for Sharon Love to make.

"Having some understanding of a volatile relationship that a student-athlete has with someone not on the team is a far cry from having knowledge of actual harm threatened or soon to be realized," he said.

Coaches' responsibilities toward their athletes vary from school to school, with some institutions laying them out in thick instruction manuals and others providing just a handful of guidelines. Few institutions contacted by The Baltimore Sun were willing to discuss the issue, given the recent lawsuit against Virginia, however.

Morgan State University officials did not respond to interview requests. And officials at Towson, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland declined to be interviewed on the topic, though the University of Maryland did provide a copy of its student athlete code of conduct.

"All student athletes are expected to conduct themselves both on and off the field in a manner that will bring respect to their teammates, coaches and university," the 65-page code states, putting the onus on coaches and administrators to "set the tone for responsible behavior."

The document covers a wide range of behavior, right down to what's appropriate for a Tweet or Facebook page, asking students to consider whether a post passes "the publicity test."

Coaches are increasingly being told to monitor their players' social media accounts for signs of misbehavior — which was endorsed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in a March report.

Nicole M. LaVoi, associate director for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota, said it's fair for coaches to scrutinize their players' actions and be held accountable for them. She noted that the environment developed by team leaders "definitely influences athlete behavior," whether it be for better or worse.

"The thing is with Millennial [generation] parents," LaVoi said, "they're very involved in the lives of their children, especially for white, middle-to-upper-class parents, and ... when they go off to college and something bad happens, then the parents want to blame the coach and the administration."

Lauren Paul, who grew up in Reisterstown, was the women's lacrosse coach at Franklin & Marshall until her firing last month. In a letter to the campus community, college President Daniel R. Porterfield linked her termination to "an investigation into a hazing event" that occurred in the spring of 2011.

F&M spokeswoman Cass Cliatt declined to discuss the details but said that coaches are educators who are expected to impart certain "universal lessons."

"We stress at F&M that all coaches have a responsibility to educate about leadership, fostering a supporting community and specifically the prohibition against hazing," Cliatt wrote in a lengthy emailed statement.

Paul's Paoli, Pa.-based lawyer, John A. Gallagher, who also represents two assistant coaches in the matter, said his clients are baffled by its handling.

"The school has made clear that it is aware that the coaches did not play, participate in or have any knowledge of the alleged hazing incident, yet for reasons that remain quite unclear, they have nevertheless been terminated," said Gallagher, who is in the process of "examining a variety of legal claims against the college."

Cozzillio, the Widener law professor, called the F&M situation a "classic example" of holding a coach accountable for her players.

"Part of me says that's terrific: If people occupy the position of mentor, we should make sure they're watching our kids," he said. "But I'm not sure it's totally fair to coaches, especially where the coaches have no knowledge of, or direct involvement in, the player's activity."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

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