The Coach-Athlete Relationship: A Legal View

Recently, we were asked to investigate cases of alleged coach misconduct that raise the question, is this specific coach in a position of trust with regard to this specific athlete? There is no debate that coaches play an extremely important role in the development of an athlete. The coach and athlete may share emotional experiences that contribute to a strong bond between the two, and this bond carries with it a great responsibility. The coach must carefully manage this bond and must nurture within it mutual trust and respect.

Yet not all coaches and athletes share such a privileged relationship. And not all coaches are in a position of authority over an athlete. This column provides some leading examples from Canadian criminal jurisprudence about the nature of such relationships.

The leading case in this area of law is the Supreme Court of Canada decision of R. v. Audet[1], in which the accused was charged with sexual exploitation under s. 153(1) of the Criminal Code, a section that prohibits every person who is in a position of trust or authority towards a young person, from engaging in any sexual activity with that young person, even where the activity is consensual (in the Criminal Code, a young person is defined as being between 14 and 18 years old).

During the summer holidays, the accused, a 22-year old physical education teacher, encountered the complainant by chance at a club. The accused had taught the complainant during the previous school year when she was in Grade 8. Later in the evening the complainant accompanied the accused to a cottage. The accused complained of a headache and decided to lie down in an adjoining room where there were two beds. Shortly, thereafter, the complainant joined the accused and lay down next to him in the same bed. During the night, the accused and the complainant awoke and engaged in oral sex.

In order to obtain a conviction under s. 153(1) of the Criminal Code, it must be proven that while the acts were committed, the accused was in a position of trust or authority towards the young person, and the circumstances and evidence of the case must demonstrate that the state of mind of the accused was that they were abusing their special position. The court established that the term ‘authority’ must not be restricted to cases in which the relationship of authority stems from a role or position occupied by the accused, but must extend to any relationship in which the accused actually exercises such power. The concept of ‘trust’, is also difficult to define in the absence of a factual context. Thus, the courts have determined that is will be up to a judge to determine, on the basis of factual circumstances relevant to the characterization of the relationship between a young person and an accused, whether the accused was in a position of trust and authority.

The court concluded in the Audet case that the circumstances of the relationship between the accused and the complainant, including the age of the accused and their relationship as teacher and student, were such that the accused was in a position of trust and authority, and he was therefore found guilty.

In R. v. Weston[2], the accused was a 30-year-old coach and had various involvements with the complainant, a 14-year old athlete, in his capacity as coach. The complainant played a couple of tournaments for the team the accused coached, but she was not a regular member of the team. The circumstances of their relationship were not sufficient to find the accused acted without consent from the athlete.

The court applied the decision from Audet as it was helpful in defining a position of authority. Authority is the power or right to enforce obedience and the power to influence the conduct and actions of others. Basically, the nature of the relationship is one of an imbalance of power. The person who holds the dominant position must be able to wield power over the young person.

In order to define the term position of trust, the court went beyond the Audet decision and stated that a position of trust imports a special responsibility – an obligation is placed on someone that is not placed on a normal person in society. There is a duty imposed upon the coach to conduct himself or herself in a certain fashion in relation to the person they owe the duty to. A person in a position of trust does not possess simply a legal duty towards the young person, but may also acquire, by virtue of the circumstances, a lawful or unlawful power to command and direct the young person.

As in the Audet case, the court referred to the age difference between the accused and the complainant; the evolution of the relationship; the formal status of the accused in relation to the complainant; and the times when the position or relationship begins and ends. When the position or relationship in question begins and ends is not always clear, but the courts have indicated that there is a finite limit to this relationship of trust and authority. Once established, it does not continue forever, and this factor was significant in the Weston decision.

In Weston, the accused was the coach of the team, exercised control and domination over all the players on team. The players followed his directions so there is no doubt that he was in a position of authority and trust, but that position ended at the end of the season. At the time of the incident, the accused had no status as a coach, the complainant was not a student, nor was she on the team coached by the accused, therefore the accused had no special duty placed on him and was not in a position of trust or authority.

As with most legal standards, there is no single or simple legal test to determine if a coach is in a legal position of authority or trust over an athlete. From these two cases we can identify the following factors as being significant:

  • Does the coach actually exercise power over the athlete?
  • Is there an imbalance of power between the coach and athlete?
  • What is the age difference between coach and athlete?
  • Does the coach give orders and does the athlete comply with these orders?
  • Is the coach/athlete relationship ongoing or has it been suspended or terminated?

This discussion of the legal duty of coaches towards athletes has not touched on ethical issues. Any coach who has intimate involvement with an athlete in their charge of any age is, in our view, morally impaired. Such involvements are usually prohibited by the sport organization’s own internal codes of behaviour. Nonetheless, knowledge of the criminal standard is important as it serves as a vivid reminder of the power that coaches can have in the coach-athlete relationship, and of the need to exercise this power with the utmost care.

[1][ 1996] 106 C.C.C. (3d) 481

[2][ 1997] A.J. No. 263

Originally published: Coaches Report (2005) Vol. 11(3)

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