Court: Athlete's Anorexia Not the Result of Coach's Verbal Abuse
John T. Wolohan
Because of the amount of time they spend together, it is not difficult to see how great an impact coaches can have on young athletes, for better or for worse. As illustrated in Besler v. Board of Education of West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District [2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2693 (2008)], there can be enormous consequences when a coach's motivational tactics descend into real or perceived verbal abuse.
In 1995-96, Jennifer Besler was a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) High School and captain of the school's soccer, basketball and softball teams. Her basketball coach at the time was Daniel Hussong, and by all accounts, Besler looked up to and idolized him. However, their relationship changed during Besler's senior year, after Hussong and his coaches held individual meetings with each player on the team. In his meeting with Besler, Hussong told her she needed to lose some weight because she was slower than the other players.
At the time, Besler was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed between 160 and 165 pounds. After the meeting ended, Besler went home and told her mother that she was fat and was not going to eat. She stopped eating breakfast and insisted her mother buy only low-fat foods. She also started exercising and running daily. Within two weeks, Besler lost 10 pounds.
As the season wore on, Hussong began to verbally abuse Besler during practice, yelling at her at least once a day. As a result, Besler claimed, her personality changed — her grades deteriorated, her sleeping became disordered and she started having nightmares about Hussong. Hussong, meanwhile, characterized his behavior as being consistent with a style of coaching that motivates athletes by negative reinforcement.
By the end of the season, Besler's parents were steadily complaining about Hussong's conduct. They claimed the school's administration and board of education did nothing about it. School administrators countered that Hussong's prior evaluations had all been satisfactory, and that once they became aware of the parents' specific complaints about him, they took immediate action to mediate the matter and believed that all concerns had been resolved.
Besler's weight obsession continued at the University of Richmond, where she enrolled in 1996 and played varsity soccer. During the season, Besler's teammates advised their coach of their concerns that Besler might be developing an eating disorder. That year, in fact, Besler was diagnosed with anorexia and referred to an eating disorder clinic during a break from college. Though Besler went to the clinic and met with its head psychiatrist, she returned to school when her break was over. By the beginning of the 1997 season, Besler weighed 139 pounds, had lost considerable muscle and was unable to keep her starting position.
In 1999, Besler was diagnosed with hypothalamic hypogonadotropic amenorrhea, the suspension of a female's menstrual cycle. It was recommended that Besler take birth control pills until either she wanted to try to become pregnant, or until she changed her lifestyle enough to raise her level of body fat so she could get periods on her own. In addition, Besler was advised that if she continued her extreme exercise regimen, her low level of body fat might make it impossible for her to have children. Although Besler was told that with treatment, 60 percent of people fully recover, she never sought it.
Besler did, however, seek redress from the courts. Claiming that Hussong's behavior led to her ongoing emotional distress, eating disorder and amenorrhea, Besler sued Hussong and the school district for negligence, reckless infliction of emotional distress, and extreme and outrageous conduct. At trial, a jury ruled that the board of education, the district's former superintendent and the former principal of the high school were liable for negligent supervision of Hussong and awarded Besler $3 million in damages, which it reduced by 51 percent (to $1.47 million), finding she failed to mitigate her damages by seeking treatment.
The board of education then filed a motion for a directed verdict with the appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. (A directed verdict is a ruling by a judge presiding over a jury trial in which he or she concludes that the plaintiff has failed to offer the minimum amount of evidence to prove a case, even if there were no opposition.) In overturning the jury award, the court ruled that New Jersey law precludes damages against a public entity or employee for pain and suffering except where there has been permanent loss of a bodily function, or permanent disfigurement or dismemberment. Although an eating disorder can be a permanent condition, the evidence had not established that either Besler's eating disorder or her amenorrhea were permanent. In both instances, the court ruled, the conditions could be reversed with proper treatment, which Besler failed to obtain.
In addition, the court noted that Besler did not receive any treatment for her alleged emotional distress, and she was never diagnosed as suffering from any psychological condition resulting from the eating disorder, amenorrhea or Hussong's conduct. Therefore, the court concluded that Besler's eating disorder, amenorrhea and emotional distress were not permanent and substantial.
The court next examined Besler's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. To prevail on such a claim, the court ruled Besler must show that: 1) Hussong acted intentionally or recklessly; 2) the conduct was so outrageous in character and extreme in degree so as to go beyond all bounds of decency; 3) Hussong's actions were the proximate cause of the emotional distress; and 4) the distress was so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.
In rejecting this claim, the court ruled that Besler failed to prove her mental distress had any impact, let alone a dramatic impact, on her daily activities. In support of its finding, the court again noted that Besler received no treatment for her alleged emotional distress, adding that she continued to attend and graduated from high school, and attended and eventually graduated from college, where (for two years) she played soccer.
Though the court found no compensable injury, it was clearly offended by Hussong's behavior, which it called "unacceptable." It is essential, therefore, that athletics administrators take an active role in controlling the behavior of their coaches by establishing clear guidelines on what is and is not appropriate behavior when interacting with players, parents and officials. If administrators fail to heed this warning, they should be prepared to end up in court. Were it not for their successful appeal, the defendants were looking at having to pay a seven-figure jury award.
Besler v. Board of Education of West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District:
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