The day after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill in late May adding a new layer of protection for high school coaches besieged by upset parents, John Erickson had three simple words: "We got it."

TROUBLED TIMES Public outcry over an off-ice incident led to Maple Grove (Minn.) High School boys' hockey coach Gary Stefano's dismissal. (© Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The day after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill in late May adding a new layer of protection for high school coaches besieged by upset parents, John Erickson had three simple words: "We got it."

The executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota State High School Coaches Association had just overseen a 10-month process that resulted in a first-of-its-kind sentence added to the existing coaching contract renewal statute. That sentence, included in a 2013 omnibus education bill and made effective July 1, reads: "The existence of parent complaints must not be the sole reason for a board to not renew a coaching contract."

Introduced in the Legislature as a bipartisan effort by Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) and Rep. Paul Marquart (D-Dilworth) - former high school cross country and wrestling coaches, respectively - Minnesota's statute reflects a new wrinkle in interscholastic sports.

"We had people in the Legislature who understood the background and some of the changes that are happening in coaching," Erickson says. "They want to take some of the pressure off not only coaches but also athletic directors, who are having to put up with an almost equal amount of abuse from parents wanting to get rid of coaches. This will protect superintendents, too. We don't look at it as something that is usurping the power of a school board or a school administration. It's aligning things into proper channels. We're hoping that we can go back to the days when parents and coaches could talk, when there was agreement, disagreement and the ability to reach a consensus. That's gone away."

FACTORS AT PLAY
How did Minnesota get to this point? Why did coaches feel they needed a shield stronger than the statute that had been in place for the past decade - one that gave coaches whose contracts were not renewed the right to know why in writing and granted them a school board hearing?

Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, told reporters that of the 110 boys' hockey coaches whose contracts had not been renewed over the past five years, at least 38 of the departures were precipitated by parental complaints. Gary Stefano, boys' hockey coach at Maple Grove Senior High School, was let go "after public outcry stemming from an off-ice incident at a private home for which 13 players were suspended," according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And two other boys' hockey coaches (Roseville High's Jeff Pauletti and Elk River High's Tony Sarsland) resigned in spring 2012 after facing highly publicized, long-running opposition from parents.

Regardless of whether specific incidents or festering discontent warrant the backlash, Erickson - who estimates that his association receives an average of 10 to 15 calls each academic year from coaches claiming abuse by parents - argues the previous statute intended to protect coaches didn't work. "It became a token hearing," he says. "In not one case that a hearing took place did we see a change in the vote."

Sports most susceptible to volatile parental interference include hockey, basketball, soccer and volleyball - all of which boast significant parental involvement at the youth, club and travel levels. Sometimes parents have trouble adjusting to the hierarchy of high school sports and the reduced role moms and dads play in the day-to-day operations of those teams, Erickson says. "A lot of it stems from what has happened prior to the high school level," he explains. "Basically, what had been created at that level was a hostile work environment. What other sector of people have to put up with that?"

"Parents feel entitled. 'I spent $10,000, my son or daughter should be better than the person who's only spent maybe $1,000 or nothing,' " Pauletti told the Star Tribune. "And that's not always the case."

A second and just as significant factor is the prevalence of social media. Gone are the days when parents had a cup of coffee to discuss their concerns before appointing one of their own to have a meeting with the coach in question. Today, parents communicate via Twitter, Facebook and text message, which enables them to form an alliance and send anonymous emails to the coach, athletic director and/or superintendent.

"The coaches want some sort of protection," Northfield High School activities director Tom Graupmann told the Northfield News. "I think they deserve that. It makes sense. I hope that by doing this, we [will] be gaining allies, and not putting up walls or shutting people out. We want the best possible situation for our kids. This legislation speaks to that."

"This is not an attack on parents in any way, shape or form," Erickson adds. "I think a vast majority of parents are so supportive of their high school athletic programs. They understand the situation and they're doing all the right things. There are just a few rogue parents who somehow have mistakenly thought they can run a high school program. The sad news is that they are so vocal, we felt we needed to have some way to address that very small group."

SOME OPPOSITION
The effort to provide a greater shield for coaches was met with support from various organizations, including the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators' Association, but some newspaper polls suggested slight opposition. The Minnesota School Boards Association officially opposed the statute, citing concern that the added sentence would leave schools open to greater litigation.

"These coaches do not need this protection; rather, frustrated parents need some avenue so that unworthy coaches are taken off the playing field," wrote Don Heinzman, an editorial board member for ECM Publishers Inc., a series of newspapers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. "School boards do not need a law that would essentially make it harder for parents to be heard and to remove coaches who have no business teaching and coaching students. There's a reason no state has a law like this."

But now that Minnesota does have such a law, Erickson says he hopes other states will follow suit. The MIAAA is expected this summer to help spread the word to coaches, who will in turn share details about the revised law with parents during preseason meetings. "We hope we never hear about the impact of the law," Erickson concludes, "because that means it worked."