Jury Awards USF Basketball Player $750K Over Coach’s Abuse

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From the professional level to youth leagues, being a coach is a hard job. Coaches must not only teach basic skills, but also push their athletes physically and mentally beyond their self-perceived limits in the interest of improved, if not optimal, performance. In doing so, coaches often are forced to walk a fine line between being merely tough and being outright abusive.

At the college level, coaching can be particularly challenging given the pressure to win games or risk losing the job. When coaches cross the line separating tough and abusive, it can have significant consequences on the athlete, the coach and the school. A recent case that illustrates this point is Marta and Marija Galic v. Molly Goodenbour and University of San Francisco, Case No.: CGC – 21 – 5923 31.

Infliction intentional? 

Marta and Marija Galic are twin sisters from Croatia who were recruited by head coach Molly Goodenbour to play women’s basketball on athletic scholarships at the University of San Francisco. What should have been a positive experience turned into a nightmare, as Goodenbour over the next few years verbally abused the sisters and other members of the team by screaming profanities and throwing objects at them during practices, games and team meetings.

In particular, the two sisters and other team members claimed that Goodenbour would mock the players’ physical appearance, direct personal attacks on individual players in front of the whole team, and describe the players in derogatory terms such as “stupid,” “worthless,” “dumb” and “incompetent.” The coach’s conduct, the players argued, went far beyond acceptable coaching methods and amounted to verbal abuse, creating a toxic culture.

To illustrate the type of abusive culture that existed, Marta Galic claimed that during one practice Goodenbour denied her request to use the bathroom, then forced Marta to complete a drill soaked in her own urine. The personal abuse and intimidation got so bad that Marija Galic claimed she was forced to seek help from USF’s mental health service after she began experiencing anxiety attacks, depression and suicidal ideation.

In addition, the players accused Goodenbour of forcing team members to play through injury, thus requiring them to endure further physical pain. Marija Galic also testified that Goodenbour repeatedly threatened to revoke her scholarship if her effort did not improve, questioned her desire and commitment to play Division I basketball, and encouraged her to leave USF.

When Marija Galic and some of her teammates attempted to complain to the Title IX office and USF athletics director Joan McDermott about Goodenbour’s conduct, the players claimed that their concerns were dismissed or ignored.

As a result of the abuse and emotional distress they claimed they suffered while on the basketball team, Marta and Marija Galic sued Goodenbour, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and gross negligence. In addition, the lawsuit claimed that the University of San Francisco was vicariously liable for the actions of Goodenbour, as well as negligent in either hiring or retaining Goodenbour and for being indifferent toward the allegations of mistreatment and abusive coaching methods made by the former players.

In support of their claims, the Galics introduced emails between athletics department officials, at least five former players corroborating Goodenbour’s alleged behavior, and records during Goodenbour’s tenure as head coach at California State University, Chico and the University of California, Irvine. (While at the latter institution, Goodenbour was reported to have made derogatory and abusive remarks to players and was eventually suspended from her employment contract).

In defense of the coach’s methods, Goodenbour and USF argued that she was only challenging her athletes and demanding their best. Such conduct, Goodenbour and USF argued, amounted to nothing more than just tough, hard-nosed coaching. (Players even acknowledged that Goodenbour was an effective teacher of the game of basketball and that she provided positive words of encouragement when players demonstrated good basketball effort.) In support of this argument, Goodenbour and USF claimed that the coach only made negative comments or used profanity in connection with the execution of her basketball coaching duties and only about the quality of basketball, such as poor effort or mistakes.

As for the claim that she threatened to revoke Marija’s scholarship or encouraged her to leave USF, Goodenbour pointed to the fact that she never talked to anyone in the administration about taking away Marija’s scholarship.

Outrageous actions

After a trial in the San Francisco County Superior Courts in July, a jury awarded Marija Galic $750,000. Of that amount, the jury determined that Marija suffered $250,000 in damages as a result of Goodenbour and USF’s intentional infliction of emotional distress and gross negligence. On top of that, the jury awarded Galic $500,000 in punitive damages, which are awarded beyond compensatory damages when jurors believe that the defendant’s actions are outrageous and they wish to punish the defendant and send a message to other parties that such action will not be tolerated in the future.

To establish a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Galic sisters needed to show that Goodenbour’s conduct was outrageous; that Goodenbour intended to cause the plaintiff’s emotional distress; that the plaintiffs suffered severe emotional distress; and that the coach’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress.

Although Goodenbour and USF argued that they were never told by the players that the coach’s conduct was causing her players severe emotional distress, based on the fact that Marija was forced to seek help from USF’s mental health service after she began experiencing anxiety attacks, and was given time away from the basketball team because of anxiety, it is easy to see how the jury could have found for Marija. However, without any direct evidence from mental health experts to support Marta’s claim, the jury rejected her claim of intentional inflection of emotional distress.

As for the negligence claim, the court held that in order to show a cause of action for negligent supervision or retention, the Galics needed to show that Goodenbour was or became unfit or incompetent to perform the work for which she was hired; that USF knew or should have known that Goodenbour was or became unfit or incompetent and that this unfitness or incompetence created a particular risk to others; that Goodenbour’s unfitness or incompetence harmed the plaintiffs; and that USF’s negligence in supervising or retaining Goodenbour was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm. Even though the jury concluded that USF was negligent in the supervision or retention of Goodenbour, it concluded that since the players signed an Agreement to Release form before the season, Goodenbour and USF were protected from any claims of negligence.

As for the final claim, the court held that to show that Goodenbour and USF were grossly negligent, the Galics would need to show a lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation. Once again, the jury concluded that Goodenbour and USF’s conduct toward Marija amounted to gross negligence, but their conduct toward Marta did not. A showing of gross negligence is important, because the Agreement to Release only protects Goodenbour and USF from ordinary negligence.

Players are people 

What can athletics administrators learn from the court’s decision in Galic v. Molly Goodenbour and University of San Francisco?

First, it is important for everyone in sports to remember that athletes at Division I schools such as the University of San Francisco — while compensated for playing sports through their scholarships and other benefits — are still considered amateurs by the NCAA and its member institutions. They are people with real feelings and emotions. Therefore, whether on the court or not, coaches need to treat their players with respect. Good coaches should be able to push their players hard, without having to verbally and physically abuse them. In fact, as the evidence showed, the only thing such behavior by a coach is likely to do is cause the players to transfer to another school or leave the sport altogether.

Second, when athletics administrators are told of possible abusive behavior, whether it takes the form of hazing, sexual harassment or emotional and physical abuse, they have a duty to investigate the claim(s). Administrators need to take all allegations seriously and investigate them right away, even if there are doubts about their validity. As illustrated by the current case, USF’s failure to investigate the allegations properly not only exposed the athletes to more harm, but also exposed the school to significant reputational and financial damages.

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