Protecting Coaches

January 29, 2015

It's no secret that today's parents want a say in their children's high school athletic teams. But what happens when their voices lead to coaches being fired? In Minnesota, state legislators have tackled this issue by introducing a law that makes it illegal to fire a coach entirely because of parent criticism.

A statement reading, "The existence of parent complaints must not be the sole reason for a board to not renew a coaching contract," was added to an existing piece of legislation and signed into law on May 22. The original bill, passed a decade ago, provides coaches with certain rights upon their termination, such as a document outlining the reasons for their non-renewal and a chance to appeal their firing in front of the school board.

According to John Erickson, Executive Director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association (MSHSCA), the number of non-renewed coaching contracts in the state has risen steadily over the past decade. In ice hockey alone, he says, 110 coaches were let go in the past five years, with 38 claiming parental complaints were to blame.

"We have found that a lot of terminations were driven by parents," says Erickson. "Their involvement was putting unfair pressure on school boards and athletic directors, and coaches had no way to defend themselves."

Besides affecting current coaches, Erickson worried the frequent terminations and public attacks would deter future individuals from joining the profession, and he believes the new legislation can help prevent this. "We fear that young men and women who were considering coaching will take one look at the hostile work environment and say, 'I don't want any part of this,'" he says. "But coaching needs to remain an attractive position so we can continue to draw from a wealth of talent."

The Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) sent a letter to the House and Senate Education Committee chairs stating its opposition to the bill, arguing it is unnecessary to limit what school boards can and cannot consider when evaluating coaching contracts. Additionally, according to Kirk Schneidawind, MSBA's Deputy Executive Director for Governmental Relations, restricting the influence of parents' concerns in the process will close school board members off from the wishes of their constituents.

But Erickson sees it differently. "We are not questioning the school boards' authority in any way," he says. "We want them to have the same latitude they've always had. It just seems that school boards and administrators are under incredible pressure when parents are unhappy, and we are trying to make sure that stress doesn't influence a decision. The boards are compelled to investigate any complaints they deem legitimate, but they are not required to follow the demands of parents."

Erickson adds that the bill was never meant to silence parents. "This isn't about getting parents out of athletics, because the vast majority are supportive and encouraging," he says. "But it does give coaches the freedom to do their jobs without worrying about being unfairly attacked and fired."

The bill was introduced and co-authored by a former high school cross country coach, Rep. Dean Urdahl, and passed through the Minnesota House of Representatives 78-56 as part of the Omnibus Education Bill. After a joint Conference Committee between House and Senate members agreed on a final version, the bill moved through the Senate 41-26 on May 19. The governor signed it into law three days later.

Although he says there are still aspects of parental interactions with coaches that could be improved, Erickson considers this bill a step in the right direction. "We certainly weren't going to back down when it came to supporting our coaches, so we feel like we have made our point," he says. "With this law on the books, hopefully it makes our coaches' jobs easier and better."
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