Sports Law • Risk Management

Punishment in Sport: Deadly Consequences?

Should there be punishment in sport? One father of a middle school girl in Indiana apparently does not agree with punishment in sport. The father did not think it was appropriate for his daughter’s basketball coach to make her run laps for arguing with another teammate. According to a Yahoo! Sports article from March 16th, the father was so upset with his daughter’s punishment, the dad administered his own punishment to the coach by socking him in head until he was unconscious. The incident may have turned deadly had another coach not intervened.

Punishment is a common method utilized to deter future unwanted behavior. But what, if any, punishment is appropriate in sport? In my blog from August 31, 2010, I wrote about a coach who withheld water as punishment for athletes who failed to meet the coach’s expectations. Because this type of punishment could very likely cause permanent physical damage or death, withholding an essential element needed for one’s survival is not appropriate in sport.

However, running laps is a traditional form of punishment in sport that is commonplace. Since running is also a conditioning method used to train athletes, running laps might not be considered abusive as long as it is not excessive. A coach should consider whether a punishment is both reasonable under the circumstances and fitting of the infraction.

But when dealing with children, a coach must be very careful in doling out physical exercise as punishment. Young children may not know how to emotionally cope with the humiliation of receiving such public punishment. Also, young children might not readily recognize or feel comfortable in communicating if any physical punishment is too physically demanding on their bodies.

Ultimately, when dealing with young children, no coach should ever be alone with any child. It is never a good idea to have only one adult left alone with any minors to avoid any appearances or actual impropriety. In this situation, the Indiana basketball coach may have been killed by the angry father had his fellow coach not been there to intervene.

Punishment in sport is both a method of motivation and a deterrence of future unwanted behavior. It does have a place in sport, but should always be reasonable and fitting of the infraction.