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Coaches' Lineup Could Include a Lawyer

Angry when their student-athlete's career languishes, parents sue the schools and instructors. Legal experts see a trend.

May 05, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

John Emme, the baseball coach at Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, has been sued twice in two years by Marc Martinez, a physician whose son pitched on the school team.

Martinez alleged in his first suit that Emme harmed his son J.D.'s future as a college pitcher by making him pitch too many innings, damaging his arm. Martinez pulled his son off the team in his senior year and later filed another suit, saying the coach made false statements in a newspaper article, ruining his son's chance for a college scholarship and, perhaps, a career in the big leagues.

Such "disappointment" lawsuits, legal experts say, are an emerging trend as parents -- who not so long ago simply attended games and pulled an occasional snack bar shift -- take on school districts and coaches over the handling of their children.

In some cases, moms and dads contend coaches have done a poor job of showcasing their children to college or pro scouts. In other suits, parents say coaches and trainers failed to help young athletes reach their potential.

Parents' expectations have been raised by the success of such athletes as Tiger Woods, Venus Williams and Kevin Garnett, who made millions when they were still teens. High school senior LeBron James of Akron, Ohio, is expected to sign a shoe deal worth $20 million to $30 million even before he is drafted by an NBA team later this year.

"The stakes have gotten higher," said Bob Jarvis, who teaches sports law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and has tracked some 200 sports lawsuits in the last year. "College costs more. Parents see all these kids going to the NBA, the tennis and golf tours, making all this money. They want it for their kids. And when it doesn't happen for them, they have to blame somebody."

"In the old days, parents said, 'You coach the kids, and we'll help get them money for travel and uniforms,' " said Jarvis. "Now, they don't want to do any of that stuff. They say, 'We'll come to the games, we'll second-guess you and we'll sue you.' "

Lawsuits in which parents or students say promising careers were short-circuited by coaches began to surface about a decade ago. About 20 such suits were filed in the last year, but experts say they are not aware of any case in which a court has ordered a financial judgment.

One early case involved Bryan Fortay, a high school football star from New Jersey who said his career nose-dived when Dennis Erickson, then the coach at the University of Miami, didn't name him the starting quarterback. Fortay alleged in the 1993 lawsuit that Erickson promised him the starting job when he was a high school senior. Fortay alleged that Erickson broke that oral contract when he gave the job to Gino Torretta, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1992. Fortay and the University of Miami eventually settled.

In 2001, Lynn Rubin of Union City, Calif., filed suit seeking $1.5 million in damages from the New Haven School District after his 15-year-old son, Jawaan, was demoted from the varsity to the junior varsity basketball team at Logan High. Rubin, who also was seeking the dismissal of the varsity coach, said in a recent interview that he felt the demotion was "messing up [Jawaan's] future and professional earnings." The suit was dismissed.

So far, most of the "disappointment cases" appear to be frivolous, said sociologist Richard Lapchick, who directs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. But if juries begin handing up judgments, he said, it could leave coaches feeling handcuffed, afraid to talk freely with recruiters, second-guessing themselves on how they handle young athletes.

For Emme, the baseball coach at Corona del Mar High for the last six seasons, the suit alleging he ruined the career of J.D. Martinez is a reflection of the times. "In this day and age," Emme said, "there are a lot of parents spending thousands of dollars grooming their kids for pro careers or college scholarships."

"I didn't want to sue the guy," said Martinez, an emergency room doctor who lives in Newport Beach. "It's costly. There are risks involved. I did everything I could, but I didn't think I had any other choice."

One of those risks includes being counter-sued. In January, Emme filed a $1-million malicious prosecution suit against Martinez, claiming the coach's reputation had been damaged.

In his suit, Emme paints his former player as "an outstanding young man" who possessed average baseball skills. But his father, the coach alleged, had "grandiose ambitions" for his son as a collegiate and professional player.

Despite claims by parents such as Martinez, the role of the high school coach in the college recruiting process has generally diminished. These days, scouting services specialize in shopping kids to colleges, complete with videotape packages highlighting a player's strengths.

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