Coaches rights when complaints are made

Netball court lines
Author:  Paul Horvath and Penny Lording, SportsLawyer
Issue: Volume 31 Number 1

While it is the rules of the game that regulate what is acceptable on field, certain policies are designed to avoid improper and unlawful behaviour from occurring off field. A coach needs to be aware of their rights if a complaint is made against them.

For example, member protection policies have been introduced in many sports to exemplify a statement of standards of behaviour to be adhered to within national sporting organisations or their affiliate bodies. These policies ensure that the following types of behaviour will not be tolerated:

  • child abuse
  • sexual assault
  • discrimination
  • bullying and harassment
  • physical assault, verbal abuse and intimidation
  • actions that create a hostile environment
  • conduct that may cause psychological injury or distress
  • acting in a manner that brings, or is likely to bring, a sport into disrepute.

Ultimately, coaches need to behave in an appropriate manner and in accordance with these policies. However, as the following case illustrates, there can be a fine line between what constitutes ‘abuse’ and what does not, such as ‘excessively enthusiastic coaching’.

Carter v NSW Netball Association (2004)

Carter v New South Wales Netball Association (NSWNA) is a case that involved Sandra Carter, a volunteer junior netball coach and well-regarded life member of the Mount Druitt Netball Association. It was alleged that Ms Carter was guilty of ‘physical and psychological [abuse], gross neglect of duty of care, medical mismanagement, deprivation of prescribed medicine and basic human rights, deception and cheating’ in breach of the NSWNA’s Anti-harassment Policy (the Policy).

After a poorly handled investigation the NSWNA Investigator concluded that Ms Carter had breached the Policy. The NSWNA Disciplinary Committee banned Ms Carter as a member of Netball NSW for a period of five years. As per the Policy, the NSWNA then notified the Commissioner of this finding of guilt under Section 39 of the Commission for Children and Young People Act 1998 (NSW). All of these actions and treatment caused Ms Carter to suffer a severe psychological reaction.

Ms Carter argued that in investigating the matter, the NSWNA did not follow the appropriate procedure set out in the Policy to deal with such matters. The Court overturned the decisions of the NSWNA Investigator and Disciplinary Committee. The Court stated that the NSWNA should have:

  • correctly informed Ms Carter of the nature of the proceedings against her
  • informed Ms Carter with sufficient particularity of what she was accused and by whom
  • given Ms Carter a reasonable opportunity to consider the specific accusations in advance of her interview with the Investigator, so that she could consider her position and obtain legal advice if she thought it necessary
  • granted Ms Carter a proper hearing before the NSWNA Disciplinary Committee, so that she could call evidence, challenge the witnesses called against her, and make submissions
  • afforded Ms Carter an unbiased, fair and reasoned decision on the part of the Disciplinary Committee, after conducting a fair hearing and impartially considering the evidence of both sides.

The court suggested that had the NSWNA Disciplinary Committee strictly adhered to the Policy, it is unlikely that the matter would have ended up in the courts. The Complaints Procedure contained in the Policy expressly states that ‘natural justice is to be observed for the alleged harasser’ (NSWNA Anti-harassment Policy, Appendix A/1).

The court also held that Ms Carter’s conduct constituted no more than ‘excessively enthusiastic coaching’. Considering a finding of guilt for child abuse can have consequences on one’s prospects of employment and one’s reputation, this distinction is vitally significant.

Netball Australia as a recognised national sporting organisation of the Australian Sports Commission is required to have member protection policies in place, and this case has prompted greater awareness and implementation of policies among member organisations.