The Volokh Conspiracy

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Title IX

Private College Coaches' Flexibility to Eject Team Members Based on Condemnation by Teammates

"Coaches must generally consider a variety of factors—both objective and subjective—in managing a team, and these factors include concerns about distractions, team cohesion, and morale."


From a decision Tuesday in Doe v. Haverford College, handed down by Judge Gerald Austin McHugh (E.D. Pa.):

Plaintiff is a senior at Haverford College … and has been a member of a varsity sports team since his first semester as a freshman. Plaintiff became a captain of his team during his junior year. The parties agree that Plaintiff had no issues with his coaches and teammates during his first two and a half years on the team.

During the spring semester in 2022, a rumor began to circulate that Plaintiff had sexually assaulted an unnamed female student on the Haverford campus. According to Plaintiff, the rumor contained no specific details about the alleged assault, and Plaintiff has consistently denied any physical or sexual contact with the student identified as the victim of an assault. Two of John's co-captains reported the allegation to their coach in early February of 2022. The coach advised John that he was required to report allegations of sexual misconduct due to his position and notified Haverford's Title IX Office of the allegation. The coach suggested to John that he step away from the team until it was resolved, and that same day Plaintiff notified his teammates via email of his intention to briefly step away from the team.

The Title IX Office reviewed the information provided by John's coach and considered whether it would open a formal investigation into the allegation. At some point, the Office also communicated with the alleged victim, who stated that she did not intend to file any formal complaint against Plaintiff. After conducting this preliminary inquiry, the Title IX Office did not open a formal investigation and communicated to Plaintiff that he could continue his life at Haverford as normal.

Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff met with his coach, informed him of the Title IX Office's conclusion, and asked to rejoin the team. The coach, however, advised John that he was no longer welcome on the team, as the other captains did not want him to rejoin. At a follow-up meeting on March 15, the coach allegedly advised John that the other captains' position was driven by their belief in the veracity of the sexual assault allegation. One week later, on March 22, Plaintiff had another meeting with his coach, the Title IX Coordinator, the Athletic Director, and the co-captains. At this meeting, his co-captains emphasized that their opposition to Plaintiff returning to the team was driven by (1) the sexual assault allegation and (2) unspecified misogynist behavior by Plaintiff. The coach, relying on these statements by the co-captains, stated at the meeting that Plaintiff would not be allowed to rejoin the team.

Since the March 22 meeting, Plaintiff—along with his parents, grandmother, and counsel—has engaged in numerous communications and meetings with staff and administrators at Haverford to seek reinstatement to the team. In early May, Plaintiff met with the Dean of Haverford and the Athletic Director to request that he be permitted to rejoin the team. But the Dean stood by the coach's actions, emphasizing that participation in athletics was a privilege for students, not a right, and stating that John's return would lead other team members and the coach to quit. In August and September, Plaintiff's parents and counsel reached out to Haverford officials in the hope of resolving the issue prior to the fall semester. Plaintiff further proposed a plan through which Haverford would assign a senior administrator who would ensure that the coach allowed Plaintiff to return to the team.

In response, the administration rejected Plaintiff's proposed plan and instead proposed a potential path to reinstatement that involved Plaintiff meeting with his coach and a co-captain to convince them to allow Plaintiff to rejoin the team. Plaintiff subsequently met with his coach on October 24, 2022. During the meeting, the coach acknowledged that the allegation of sexual assault was not a proper basis to keep Plaintiff off the team, but that his teammates also raised other concerns with Plaintiff returning to the team that were unrelated to the assault allegation. The coach would not elaborate and insisted that Plaintiff discuss these concerns directly with his teammates. Plaintiff was unable to meet with two co-captains of the team until several weeks later on December 2, after the winter season had commenced. During the meeting, one co-captain—Captain A—was steadfast in his belief that Plaintiff should not return to the team. When questioned on why, Captain A noted that he had general concerns with Plaintiff's treatment of women but did not identify any specific past event or occurrence demonstrating this behavior….

The court concluded that the refusal to reinstate Doe on the team likely wasn't a breach of contract:

[T]he Coach does not currently invoke the assault accusation as the basis for excluding Doe from the ongoing season. Rather, the Coach invokes the team's negative reaction to the prospect of Doe's return. Indeed, in his affidavit, the Coach represents that his decision not to reinstate Doe to the team was aimed at preventing disruption. Specifically, the Coach avers that:

A significant number of Doe's former teammates told me that they were deeply uncomfortable with Doe rejoining the team. Many said they would quit if Doe were re-instated. I decided that Doe's participation on the team would negatively impact the team atmosphere and severely hinder or eliminate the team's ability to perform to their fullest potential …

Based on my discussion with Doe, my discussions with the co-captains and team members, and my own personal observations regarding the team's dynamics, I determined that it was in the best interest of all involved to decline Doe's request to rejoin the team …

My decision was not meant to be punitive to Doe, but instead was a necessary operational decision to pursue optimal team performance. My decision was not based on any assessment of whether Doe had, or had not, engaged in conduct which, if true, would have violated Haverford's Sexual Misconduct Policy. It was based entirely upon my deep and sincere concern that allowing Doe to rejoin the team would negatively impact team performance and become a untenable distraction.

… Moreover, I am persuaded by Haverford's argument that the Coach's actions throughout the process constitute a reasonable exercise of the broad discretion that team sports vest in coaches to manage their teams. Coaches must generally consider a variety of factors—both objective and subjective—in managing a team, and these factors include concerns about distractions, team cohesion, and morale….

Many of the arguments Doe raises are equitable in nature, condemning "mob justice" and stressing how unfair it is that he lacks a process through which to defend his reputation. But the claim on which Doe seeks injunctive relief sounds in law, not equity, and my role is not to decide what comports with the traditional values of Haverford College or what is the appropriate course for a coach to follow when confronted with a mismatch between one of his athletes and his team. The specific legal question before me is whether Doe has established a reasonable chance of success on his breach of contract claim, and I conclude that he has not….

And the court also held that Doe hadn't sufficiently shown irreparable harm:

Courts are split on whether denial of athletic opportunity constitutes irreparable harm. If I were persuaded that Doe's absence from the team directly resulted from Haverford's failure to follow its Title IX procedures, a finding of irreparable procedural harm would readily follow. But the record here does not strongly support such a conclusion. Doe's college career is quickly approaching an end, and in that respect, it can be said that the opportunity to compete for Haverford will be irretrievably lost. But Doe points to no future consequences flowing from his ineligibility, such as loss of future opportunities as an athlete {[s]ome courts have even held that this type of loss is too speculative to constitute irreparable harm}, and even at this stage he could compete as an unaffiliated athlete in certain competitions, as his Coach pointed out in an email.

Ultimately, the harm Doe most seeks to address is reputational, and it is unclear that an injunction would provide such relief…. It is difficult to see how an order of this Court inserting itself into the affairs of a college athletic team will provide such relief, as teammates can still express their views in a variety of ways well beyond the control of the Court.

Congratulations to Joshua Richards and Levi Schy, who represent Haverford.