Sports Law • Risk Management

January 8, 2011: Age Discrimination in Sports For Those Over Forty

I just finished reading the book “Personal Foul: Coach Joe Moore vs. The University of Notre Dame” by Richard Lieberman. The book tells the story of the nationally publicized trial from the mid-nineties where the jury found that then sixty-four year-old Moore was unlawfully terminated from coaching football at The University of Notre Dame for age discrimination. As a result, Notre Dame was ordered to pay damages and attorneys’ fees, but the university also suffered a blow to its reputation. Following the loss of the trial there was even a changing of the guard of some of the administration at Notre Dame.

The takeaway from this book, that it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because of his or her age, is a lesson for all employers who have twenty or more employees. The federal law, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), protects workers who are forty years of age or older provided a place of employment has at least twenty employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) provides additional guidance to employers on the breadth of this law. For instance, a qualifying employer may not discriminate on the basis of age by refusing to hire an otherwise qualified employee or by denying benefits or promotions. Certainly firing for reasons of age is also unlawful under the ADEA, as was reinforced in the case of Moore v. The University of Notre Dame.

Furthermore, the EEOC explains on its website that a person cannot be harassed about his or her age to the extent that it creates a hostile and offensive work environment or if it results in the person being fired or demoted. While the ADEA is a federal law that provides a minimal level of protection for some employees, a state may increase the protections for employees. Thus, depending on your state laws, your sports organization might be subject to higher standards than those imposed by the ADEA. Ultimately, it is best to keep in mind how you treat all potential or current employees to avoid being accused of age discrimination.