Academic journal article The Sport Journal

Identifying and Assessing the Elements of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Sport

Academic journal article The Sport Journal

Identifying and Assessing the Elements of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Sport

Article excerpt


Horror stories of outlandish behavior by coaches in the sport milieu: many have heard the stories, to one extent or another. Many have personally dealt with the accompanying emotions of dread, humiliation, discrimination, and fear that coaches have imposed during practices and games. Many have suffered immeasurably while helplessly watching their child endure torment at the hands of an abusive coach or coaches. Many have asked the same questions: What can be done? What good can possibly come from garnishing discussion with the coach, athletic director or administrator? Will the ordeal continue with new vigor because the problem was brought out into the open? Parents often struggle with these types of questions, wavering in a sea of indecision, wishing for easy solutions to unfortunate situations. And so the questions remain: what can be done; are there potential solutions; and where can one seek advice?

Assuming that the parties involved have exhausted all possible common sense remedies such as speaking directly with the coach and/or the administration, the logical next step would be to turn to tort law within the legal system. A tort is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1982) as "a wrongful act, damage, or injury done willfully, negligently, or in circumstances involving strict liability, but not involving breach of contract, for which a civil suit can be brought" (p. 1280). According to the Free Online Law Dictionary (2009) a tort has three elements that a plaintiff must ascertain in court. First, it must be established that the defendant be under a legal duty to act in a certain way. Second, it must be shown that the defendant breached this duty by failing to match his or her actions accordingly. Third, it must be shown that the plaintiff suffered injury or loss as a direct result of the defendant's breach.

The difficulty faced by courts considering sport related tort cases in regards to coaching behaviors is to distinguish an exact point where coaches have crossed the line. Because the alleged abuse is emotionally centered, it is difficult to discern emotional abuse from coaching tactics used to motivate athletes to perform at higher levels. Tort law that specifically targets this type of behavior is intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).

IIED is a tort claim that focuses on intentional conduct resulting in extreme emotional distress which causes a mental reaction such as anguish, grief, or fright in response to another person's actions that brings about recoverable damages. According to Personal Injury Law (2009), to successfully prove a claim for IIED, one must establish four elements: the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous; the defendant's act is the cause of the distress; and the plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of the defendant's conduct. Unfortunately, these four elements consist of ambiguous wording including such terms as reckless, extreme, outrageous, and severe that attempt to describe defendant actions. Elusive terms such as these have helped to create a confused tort that means "entirely different things to different judges" (Russell, 2008) resulting in wide-ranging court decisions and ones that are difficult to win.


The purpose of this paper is to identify and assess the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and discover legal precedent. An attempt will be made to uncover potential solutions, if any are to be found, that can be employed when confronted with the unfortunate events that surround IIED within the sport environment.


Understanding the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress will benefit athletic directors, coaches, athletes, parents, spectators, team owners, commissioners, and others associated with sport. It is essential to appreciate the legal aspects of sport because unique situational variables will inevitably arise in the sport milieu. …

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