The Legal Duties of Athletic Departments

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Athletic administrators are responsible for legal concerns associated with sporting programs.

Interscholastic athletic administrators oversee all aspects of elementary and secondary school sports programs, from hiring and supervising coaches to budgeting and planning. Athletic administrators are also responsible for managing and minimizing risks and legal concerns that may come with sporting programs.

Athletic directors are expected to ensure that student-athletes, coaches, spectators, and others are not injured as a result of sporting events. They have the legal responsibility, or a duty of care, to ensure safety rules and regulations are followed.

“Sports law can be complex and the thousands of requirements and regulations seem to change at a rapid pace. Athletic directors must keep up, and the best way to achieve that is by seeking help from school officials and sports attorneys who can provide guidance on creating a safe playing environment that meets all legal obligations,” Coach & Athletic Director said in “Protecting your athletic program.”

“Make sure your actions and policy reflect what’s in the best interest of students and staff, and your athletic department will be on the path to avoiding lawsuits and other harmful conflicts in the future,” the article continued.

When facing legal issues in high school athletics, athletic administrators should understand potential problems and pitfalls in interscholastic sports. The leading educational programs, including Ohio University’s Masters in Athletic Administration online, emphasize the importance of risk management in athletics.

Negligence and Interscholastic Athletics

In the past decades, school districts and lawmakers have made changes to rules and regulations aimed at protecting students from injuries as a result of interscholastic sports. Many of the changes and improvements have been the result of litigation.

For athletic administrators to be knowledgeable about the legal issues in high school athletics, they should first understand the structure of civil proceedings. Unlike criminal law, civil law typically results in a monetary judgment or changes in laws or regulations. To prove negligence, four standards must be met:

  • Duty
    Does the defendant (usually the school, the school’s athletics department, or the athletic administrators) owe a duty to the plaintiff (the injured party)?
  • Breach
    Did the defendant breach the duty to the plaintiff?
  • Causation
    Did the defendant’s actions or inactions (breach of duty) cause the injuries?
  • Harm
    Did the plaintiff suffer harm?

Legal Duties of Athletic Administrators

As a result of the changes in laws and regulations, experts have developed legal duties for athletic directors. The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS), the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrator Association (NIAAA), and the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) are among the organizations that recognize 14 duties that athletic administrators have regarding student-athletes:

  1. Planning
    Planning includes developing rules and regulations for athletic programs and informing all athletes, parents, and coaches. Planning creates a proactive mindset that can help avoid injuries.
  2. Supervising
    The duties of supervision include providing safe grounds for the practice, being physically present, providing complete instructions, and structuring practices based on age and capability.
  3. Evaluating athletes for readiness to play
    Coaches must maintain health and physical records for players and ensure injured players have the proper clearance before returning.
  4. Maintaining safe playing conditions
    Safe conditions include watching the weather for potential hazards, identifying defective equipment, and recognizing hazardous environments.
  5. Providing proper equipment
    All equipment must carry National Operating Commission on Safety in Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) certification and be properly fitted. Athletes must wear protective gear when playing.
  6. Providing proper instruction
    Athletes should be fully informed of the rules and regulations regarding safe play and warned about the prohibited practice and unsafe techniques.
  7. Matching athletes
    Athletes should be matched according to size, speed, maturity, age, and skill.
  8. Warning of possible risks
    Athletes and parents should be warned of sports-specific risks and hazards.
  9. Conditioning properly
    Athletes should be given the opportunity for proper cardiovascular and musculoskeletal conditioning that prepare for the activity.
  10. Ensuring insurance coverage for athletes
    All athletes should be cleared through the athletics department and not be allowed to participate without clearance.
  11. Providing emergency care
    Coaches and athletic administrators should be prepared to administer first aid for a range of traumatic injuries. They should be trained and certified in CPR and sports-specific injuries.
  12. Having an emergency care plan in place
    A proper emergency plan includes having the proper first-aid equipment, such as a spine board and other emergency response equipment, and access to a nearby phone to call EMS.
  13. Providing safe transportation
    Athletic administrators and coaches should have a complete roster of participants, including emergency contact numbers, and cross-check the list before leaving an away game. School district transportation should be used as much as possible.
  14. Selecting, training, and supervising coaching staff
    Athletic administrators are responsible for ensuring that coaches can follow the aforementioned 13 legal duties. Reasonable care should be used when hiring and training all athletics personnel.

Other Legal Obligations for Athletic Directors

In addition, athletic directors are required to follow other laws and regulations aimed at protecting students:

  • Title IX
    A federal law that bans discrimination based on gender in educational programs or activities receiving federal funding. Title IX includes providing equal accessibility for boys’ and girls’ teams in all areas, including locker rooms, travel, equipment, and uniforms.
  • Disability laws
    Federal laws, including the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), were developed to provide students with differing abilities the same opportunities.
  • Hazing and bullying prevention rules
    Policies and proactive educational programs should be in place to eliminate student-to-student and coach-to-student hazing and bullying.

Interscholastic athletic directors should also keep abreast of changes to the district, state, and federal regulations and laws that could impact legal issues in high school athletics. At Ohio University, Masters in Athletic Administration online students take a deep dive into interscholastic athletic program legal duties through the Legal Foundations of Risk Management in Athletics course. Students study topics that include constitutional law, negligence and tort law, and federal law as they apply to interscholastic athletics.

About Ohio University’s Masters in Athletic Administration Online

Ohio University’s MAA program provides students with a well-rounded athletic director education. Through the program, interscholastic athletic professionals and others (including athletic administrators and coaches) can advance their careers as interscholastic athletic directors to manage successful athletic departments.

Ohio University’s sports education programs have been lauded as the best in the United States. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to lead the nation in sports academia. The program is housed within the College of Business, underscoring the university’s dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the NIAAA to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA).


Recommended Reading

Implementing and Maintaining Inclusive Sports Programs
A Closer Look at Youth Sports Injuries
Preventing Concussions in Sports



Coach & A.D., “Protecting your athletic program”
FindLaw, “Proving Fault: What is Negligence?”
North Carolina Athletic Department Association, “14 Legal Duties of Athletics:”
The U.S. Department of Education, “Title IX and Discrimination”