Court of Law: Legality of Coaches Using Physical Force

February 22nd, 2007




During a stoppage in play in Texas Tech’s win over Gardner-Webb on November 13, 2006, Tech’s men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight called sophomore forward Michael Prince over to the sideline to talk to him.  Knight was seen hitting Prince’s chin with his hand while speaking to him.  The incident received immediate national attention because the network ESPNU was broadcasting the game and Knight has built a reputation of often being crude, out-of-control, and having a propensity to use violence and foul language against student-athletes, referees, reporters, fans, university administrators, and members of the general public.


During his forty-year coaching career, Knight has thrown an LSU fan into a garbage can, fired a starter’s pistol at a member of the press, been convicted of assaulting a Puerto Rican police officer then evaded an extradition order issued by the Puerto Rican government, made a joke about sexual violence to reporter Connie Chung, kicked his son—and then Indiana University Assistant Coach Patrick Knight—during a game, been fined $30,000 by the NCAA for verbally abusing a media relations volunteer for having made a mistake related to his attendance at a press conference, been cited for hunting without a license after having shot a hunting partner in the back, “motivated” student-athletes with used toilet paper, assaulted an IU student who did not use the title “coach” when addressing him, and been involved in numerous other incidents of violence and intimidation against others.  But Knight is also clearly one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time:  he has won more games than any other Division I coach in NCAA history, won three national championships and eleven Big Ten championships while at Indiana, and coached his teams to almost 30 NCAA tournament appearances. 


Knight was fired from his head coaching position at IU, after almost 30 years at the school, for “a pattern of unacceptable behavior”, but was hired by Texas Tech as its men’s basketball coach in 2001.  Knight had not been involved in any controversies at Tech until the incident with Michael Prince in November of last year.


Knight’s critics immediately jumped at the opportunity to blast his coaching style again, seeing Knight’s actions as an “assault” of Prince and just one more example of his self-admitted temper problems.  But the furor was not as intense and prolonged as it had been in the past, perhaps because many members of the media, the Texas Tech administration, and even Michael Prince and his family, simply saw a coach use relatively harmless physical contact—which some characterized as nothing more than a physical gesture—in disciplining one of his student-athletes. 


But the question remains:  How far may a coach go in using physical force to discipline or motivate student-athletes?  What rules or laws restrain a coach’s actions against his or her own players? 


NCAA and Conference Rules 


Surprisingly, neither the rules of the NCAA nor the Big XII Conference address this matter in great detail. 


A spokesperson for the NCAA stated that the NCAA does not have any rule, regulation, or by-law which address the use of physical force in disciplining student-athletes during practices—that the disciplining of players during practices is a matter left entirely up to member institutions.  The spokesperson stated that the conference would have authority, if it chose to exercise it, over the disciplining of a coach for using physical force against one of his own players during regular season games.  However, the spokesperson stated that in NCAA championship tournaments, a referee has the authority and discretion to assess fouls or expel any coach who uses physical force against a player—including one of his or her own student-athletes—and the NCAA could issue, at most, a letter of reprimand to that coach. 


A spokesperson for the Big XII Conference stated that the Conference has chosen not to address a coach’s authority over student-athletes, and considers the matter to be entirely controlled by a member institutions rules and policies.  


It seems that almost all conferences follow the Big XII Conference’s policy.  Only one other conference seems to have addressed a coach’s use of physical force during a game, although not during practice time.  One of the major conferences in NCAA Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey is Hockey East.  Article XII, Section 11 of the Hockey East Code of Conduct defines “unsportsmanlike conduct” during an intercollegiate athletic event as including, among other things, “Any coach [who] acting in an official capacity strikes or physically abuses...student-athletes.”  The penalty for violating this rule is “penalties as deemed appropriate by the Commissioner” of Hockey East.  It must be noted that the rule does not define “strike” or “abuses”, and that it applies to all “student-athletes”, not just those on the opposing team. 


However, the Hockey East rule would generally not seem to include the low-level of contact used by Bobby Knight against Michel Prince.  Then, again, it would also not be unreasonable to interpret Knight’s “touching” of Prince’s chin a “strike” if the Hockey East’s rule were applied to the incident quite literally.  The Knight/Prince incident would, therefore, probably not be considered a violation of the Hockey East rule since Knight’s action was not clearly violent and was even ambiguous as a disciplinary measure.  However, it is clear that a physical action taken by a coach against one of his or her own student-athletes which exceeds that used by Knight could result in disciplinary action taken against the coach by the conference—at least in Hockey East.


Institutional Rules


The NCAA and the Big XII Conference—like most conferences—do not take a stance on the use of physical force by a coach in disciplining student-athletes, and take the stance that the matter is up to the individual academic institutions.  But what do institutional disciplinary codes and rules say about coaches disciplining student-athletes?


Texas Tech University System Board Rule 03.02 states:


            Colleges and universities that are tax-supported must function in accordance with

            the public trust and the actions of faculty, staff and students within them must be

            consistent with the execution of that trust.  A breach of trust includes, but will not

            be limited to…the use of force or violence…[and] physical abuse of any person on

            TTU system-owned or controlled-property or at TTU system-sponsored or supervised

            functions or conduct which threatens or endangers the health or safety of any such person. 


Another section of the rules states that any person who violates Rule 03.02 may, as determined by TTU, be subject to punishments ranging from a letter of reprimand to “separation from the TTU system.” 


Again, the Knight/Prince incident would not appear to rise to the level of physical contact prohibited by  Rule 03.02.  While it is apparent Knight used some level of physical “force,” it would not appear to rise to the level of “violence” nor does “physical abuse” appear to be involved, and the action clearly did not “threaten[ ] or endanger[ ] the health or safety” of Prince. 


However, the TTU rule could prove troublesome for coaches who use physical force in practices or games to discipline student-athletes.  If his or her use of the physical force constituted physical abuse of a student-athlete or if the coach’s use of force caused injury—or had the potential to cause injury—to a student-athlete, the coach’s actions would most likely violate Rule 03.02 and could subject that coach to discipline by TTU. 


State Laws Prohibiting Assault 


Beyond the disciplinary codes of educational institutions, we must then turn to the general laws of the states to determine whether a coach may use physical force to discipline a student-athlete. 


Texas Penal Code Sec. 22.01 defines misdemeanor assault as occurring when a person: 


- intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily harm to another…; or,

-  intentionally or knowingly threatens another with imminent bodily injury…; or,

- intentionally or knowingly causes bodily contact with another when the person knows or should reasonably believe that the other person will regard the contact as offensive or provocative. 


The Texas Penal Code, which is typical of most state laws on assault, raises a particular assault to the level of a felony if the victim is a public servant, a private security officer, a vulnerable victim, such as the elderly, or if the victim is a member of the alleged assailant’s family.  The Penal Code also provides for increased punishment of the assailant, as a misdemeanor, if the assault was committed by a person not involved in a sporting event against a participant in a sporting event during that sporting event, or later if the assault was based on the participant’s performance during the sporting event; this section, however, would not apply to the Knight/Prince incident because both Knight and Prince were participants in the Texas Tech/Gardner Webb game.


Again, it would appear that Knight did not violate Texas law:  Knight did not cause bodily harm to Prince, he did not threaten Prince with bodily harm, and Prince has stated that he did not regard Knight’s “bodily contact” with him as “offensive or provocative.”  However, coaches should be aware that if they cause bodily harm to a student-athlete during practice or a game—and the code does not require that extensive bodily harm occur—or even threaten it, they could commit criminal assault under their state’s laws.  Further, even if the physical contact or force used by the coach against a particular student-athlete is minimal, coaches should be aware that simple “bodily contact” could be considered assault if the student-athlete regards that contact as “offensive or provocative.” 


State Anti-Hazing Laws 


All of the states have also passed laws specific to academic settings, including laws prohibiting the use of violence to maintain order and discipline in on campus student groups.  While these laws, known generally as “anti-hazing laws,” are generally aimed at eliminating the hazing activities conducted by fraternities and sororities, they can, and have been, construed to cover situations in which coaches or student-athletes use some sort of physical force against a student-athlete.  The Texas anti-hazing statute, Texas Public Education Code Sec. 37.151, which is typical of most state statutes, defines “hazing” as: 


            any intentional, knowing, or reckless act, occurring on or off the campus of an educational institution, by one person alone or acting with others, directed against a student, that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in, or maintaining membership in an organization. The term includes:
            (A) any type of physical brutality, such as whipping, beating, striking, branding, electronic shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body, or similar activity;


            (B) any type of physical activity, such as sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, confinement in a small space, calisthenics, or other activity that subjects the student to an unreasonable risk of harm or that adversely affects the mental or physical health or safety of the student;
            (C) any activity involving consumption of a food, liquid, alcoholic beverage, liquor, drug, or other substance that subjects the student to an unreasonable risk of harm or that adversely affects the mental or physical health or safety of the student;
            (D) any activity that intimidates or threatens the student with ostracism, that subjects the student to extreme mental stress, shame, or humiliation, that adversely affects the mental health or dignity of the student or discourages the student from entering or remaining registered in an educational institution, or that may reasonably be expected to cause a student to leave the organization or the institution rather than submit to acts described in this subdivision; and
            (E) any activity that induces, causes, or requires the student to perform a duty or task that involves a violation of the Penal Code.


The Texas anti-hazing statute is made applicable to colleges and universities in the state under Texas Education Code Sec. 51.936. 


Under Texas law, hazing is a misdemeanor if it does not result in serious bodily injury, is a misdemeanor with enhanced punishment if the hazing results in serious bodily injury, and is a felony if it results in the death of the victim.  Texas Education Code Sec. 37.154 prohibits any real or purported consent by the victim from being used as a defense by the alleged perpetrator. 


The first question to be addressed is whether an anti-hazing statute, like that of Texas, is applicable to the coach of a varsity athletic team when disciplining a student-athlete.  The statute’s very terms state that it applies to a “person” who directs his or her actions against a “student” for the purpose of allowing the student to maintain membership in an organization.  As a coach is a person directing his or her actions against a student-athlete and, if the student fails to acquiesce to the coach’s actions he or she could lose a spot on the team’s roster, it would appear that the hazing statute does, in fact, apply to coaches in their disciplining of student-athletes. 


The question, therefore, becomes whether the coach’s actions constitute activities that could constitute “hazing” under the statute.  It is obvious that the anti-hazing statute’s range of prohibited activity is broader than that of the assault statute or even institutional and conference rules:  the statute does not simply require that physical force be used or threatened against a person, but includes “any activity” that threatens the victim with “ostracism...mental stress, shame, or humiliation” or “adversely affects the mental health or dignity of the student.”  Failure to comply with such hazing activities may be “reasonably expected to cause a student to leave the organization.”  


It does, therefore, seem quite plausible for a coach to be prosecuted under an anti-hazing statute if he or she simply engages in disciplinary actions against a particular student-athlete that cause “mental stress, shame, or humiliation” and those disciplinary actions could reasonably be “expected to cause a student to leave” the team—or lose a scholarship.  It would also appear that a coach would not have a defense available to him or her that the student had consented to such disciplinary actions because the student understood, in advance, that such disciplinary actions may be used by a coach or student-athletes during practices or games as all “consent” defenses are prohibited by statute.


Did Bobby Knight’s actions against Michael Prince constitute a violation of the Texas anti-hazing statute?  While Knight, as coach of a varsity athletic team—a recognized Texas Tech student group—could be subjected to the jurisdiction of the statute, it would seemingly be a great stretch to find that his light “punch” of Prince on the chin was calculated by Knight to subject Prince to “mental stress, shame, or humiliation” that could reasonably be expected to cause Prince to quite the team. 


If, however, a coach committed an act like Knight’s “punch” of Prince as part of a larger, regular pattern of activity calculated to induce “mental stress, shame, or humiliation” in a student-athlete such that he or she would comply rather than risk losing a scholarship or a roster spot, then such an action, or actions, could probably be prosecuted under a state anti-hazing statute.  In other words, anti-hazing statutes may well be the greatest challenge to a coach’s disciplinary authority over student-athletes for those coaches who use a more physical or “in-your-face” disciplinary style.




Reported examples of coaches being punished for disciplining student-athletes are very limited.  A search of the state and federal court case databases of the United States found no cases in which a college-level coach was prosecuted under an anti-hazing statute.  Further, most disciplinary proceedings of coaches, as university employees, are generally not publicly available.   However, the following state and federal court cases were found involving a coach’s use of force in disciplining student-athletes:


In Neal v. Fulton County Board of Education, 229 F.3d 1069 (11th Cir. 2000), Durante Neal, a high school freshman and member of the Tri-Cities (Ga.) High School varsity football team, was slapped in the face by another member of the team, Royonte Griffin, during practice.  Tommy Ector, the head coach of the football team, told Neal that “you need to learn how to handle your own business.”  Neal took this to mean that he should defend himself against Griffin’s slap.  Neal obtained a weight lock, put it into his gym bag, and struck Griffin with it.  Neal and Griffin immediately began to fight.  Ector, and Tri-Cities High School principal Herschel Robinson, both of whom were in the immediate area, initially watched the fight the did not intervene.  After a few minutes, Ector went over to the fight, dumped the contents of Neal’s gym bag on the ground and shouted repeatedly, “What did you hit him with?  If you hit him with it, I am going to hit you with it.”  Ector then picked up the weight lock and struck Neal in the left eye.  Neal’s eye was knocked completely out of its socket, “leaving it destroyed and dismembered” and he was in severe pain.  Ector still failed to intervene in the fight.  Neal eventually received medical treatment, but he was permanently blinded in his left eye. 


Neal sued Ector and the local school district for excessive use of corporal punishment, alleging that Ector’s actions were “so excessive as to shock the conscience” and violate his rights to be free of excessive corporal punishment under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Ector and the school district asked the federal court in Atlanta to dismiss Neal’s suit, claiming that Ector’s actions did not constitute the use of corporal punishment.  The court, however, found that Ector’s actions did constitute corporal punishment and may have violated Neal’s rights under the 14th Amendment.  Apparently, the case was settled prior to trial.


People v. Nelson, 58 Cal. App.4th 193, 67 Cal. Rptr.2d 899 (Cal. App. 1997), was a criminal prosecution of a coach of a junior college women’s basketball team who allegedly punched one of his players in the mouth during a practice session.  During a practice session of the Harbor Community College (HCC) of California women’s basketball team during early 1995, Lewis Nelson, the head coach, became upset when on of his players, Tammy Miles, did not “push the ball up the court” as he had ordered.  In punishment for this failure, Nelson ordered the entire team to “run suicides,” that is, sprint from the basketball court’s baseline to the center court line numerous times.  Lameisha Pittman, another HCC player, was allowed to sit down because she suffered from sore feet.  After practice resumed, angry words were exchanged between Miles and Pittman and they began to fight.  Nelson stopped the practice and allowed his team and coaches to watch the fight for, witnesses estimated, two to six minutes.  Miles, bleeding, returned to the locker room and practice resumed.  However, Latrice Polk, another HCC player, refused to return to practice and walked away from the court.  Nelson ordered her to return to practice, but Polk said that Nelson let the fight continue too long and that he should have stopped it.  Nelson shouted to Polk, “Get your ass back on the court!” and “You’re just a big baby!”  Polk shouted “You’re the baby!” back to Nelson, then sat down on some bleachers in order to remove her shoes.  Nelson walked over to Polk and, according to varying witness accounts, either punched her in the head several times or grabbed her “to calm her down.”  The incident ended with Polk suffering from “a black eye, a cut lip, a bloodied ear, a lump on the back of her head, and numerous scratches.  Several witnesses stated that Polk suffered the injuries due to Nelson’s punches, while other stated she suffered the injuries when she fell down the bleachers some time after Nelson released her.


Nelson was prosecuted for battery with serious bodily injury and battery on school property.  The Los Angeles County jury found sufficient evidence to convict Nelson of the battery on school property charge, but found him not guilty on the battery with serious bodily injury charge.  Nelson was sentenced to one year’s probation and ordered to pay a $500.00 fine. 




Did Bobby Knight violate any rule or law by lightly “punching” Michael Prince during Texas Tech’s game against Gardner Webb?  No—despite the claims of his critics to the contrary.  But, generally, coaches could be punished or even prosecuted if their disciplining of players crosses over a vaguely-defined line that seems to separate more excessive discipline from that which many coaches engage in every day.  However, coaches, players, and schools should be aware that the anti-hazing statutes of the various states may be used against coaches who engage in physical—or even psychological—punishment of student-athletes.