Court: Association’s Rejection of Coach Was Not Defamation

Nov 20, 2009

The Supreme County of Illinois has ruled that stated reason used by a youth baseball organization to bar a parent from coaching his son in a youth baseball league was not defamatory and the action itself did not rise to the level of civil conspiracy.
The decision affirmed a trial court’s finding and reversed an appellate court, which had found for the plaintiff.
Plaintiff John Green is a practicing dentist and licensed attorney, who lives in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. From 2000 to 2004, the plaintiff and his son were actively involved in the Clarendon Hills Little League (CHLL) program. During this period, plaintiff served at various times as a team manager, as a coach, and as director of the CHLL minor league.
In November 2004, the defendant, Steven Rogers, was elected president of CHLL. The following month, Green submitted his name for a coaching position in the CHLL major league. On March 4, 2005, Rogers sent plaintiff an email stating that the CHLL board had decided not to assign plaintiff a coaching position in the CHLL major league for the 2005 season. According to his email, “this decision was based on a long pattern of behavior, which is not consistent with what we feel is acceptable for our coaches.” Rogers added that the decision “was not made in haste” and that the CHLL board “had spent several hours in several meetings discussing the pros and cons of the decision.” The defendant then noted that, although the plaintiff would not be assigned an official coaching position on his son’s team, he would be free to assist his son’s team as a volunteer during practices and before games. Finally, the defendant invited the plaintiff to call him at home if plaintiff wanted to discuss the board’s decision any further.
Green appealed, laying out an argument for why he should be allowed to coach. He also claimed that, “because it had reached its coaching decision without first giving plaintiff an opportunity to be heard, the CHLL board had violated the Little League and CHLL constitutions, the Little League and CHLL bylaws, and plaintiff’s ‘Due Process to a fair and impartial hearing.’”
On March 9, 2005, in a letter signed by defendant in his capacity as CHLL board president, the CHLL board informed plaintiff that his March 7 request for an appeal had been denied. The letter explained that the rules and regulations that plaintiff accused the CHLL board of violating do not apply to the process of selecting coaches. In addition, the letter advised plaintiff that the CHLL board had the full support of both the district and regional Little League headquarters and that both of those bodies had confirmed that the CHLL’s coaching decisions were made in full compliance with all relevant procedures.
The dispute continued until Green ultimately sued, alleging defamation per se and civil conspiracy. Rogers moved to dismiss the complaint leading to the aforementioned involvement of the courts. In finding for the defendant, the court noted:
“Considering both the substance of the defendant’s alleged statements and the context in which they allegedly were made, we find that those statements are reasonably capable of an innocent construction. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the defendant, in his capacity as president of the CHLL board, accused the plaintiff of ‘misconduct with children which was not acceptable for CHLL coaches’ and of ‘abus[ing] players, coaches, and umpires in CHLL.’ These statements were made in the context of selecting coaches for the CHLL season, and both statements were specifically confined to the context of Little League coaching. Moreover, the alleged statements were followed immediately by multiple assurances from the defendant that, although he would not be assigned a formal coaching position, plaintiff would be free to assist his son’s team ‘with practices and pre-game activities.’
“Given this context, we do not believe it reasonable to conclude that the defendant was accusing the plaintiff of the types of abuse and misconduct that would impute a lack of integrity in the plaintiff’s chosen professions-that is, of physically or sexually abusing players, coaches, and umpires, or of some form of ‘immorality’ with children that was not acceptable for CHLL coaches. Were the defendant’s allegations of this nature, the defendant presumably would have taken every step to ensure that the plaintiff did not come in contact with CHLL players, coaches, or umpires. At the very least, the defendant would not have repeatedly and contemporaneously invited the plaintiff to assist his son’s team ‘with practices and pre-game activities’ and to participate ‘in any way’ he could work out with his son’s coach. Yet, according to the plaintiff’s own complaint, this is exactly what the defendant did. The only reasonable interpretation, therefore, is that the defendant was accusing the plaintiff not of the worst forms of abuse or misconduct, but only of the most innocuous forms of abuse and misconduct-that is, of ‘coarsely reproaching’ players, coaches, and umpires, and of ‘mismanagement’ that was not acceptable for CHLL coaches. And accusations such as this simply do not rise to the level of defamation per se. Behavior of this nature is neither unusual nor unexpected from parents and coaches in amateur athletics, and both of the defendant’s alleged statements are specifically confined to this context.
“More importantly, the defendant’s obvious openness to the plaintiff’s active, albeit informal, participation in CHLL activities confirms that the defendant was saying only that the plaintiff is not suited for CHLL coaching, not that the children of Clarendon Hills need to be protected from the plaintiff. And as the appellate court below correctly held, the assertion that the plaintiff is not suited for CHLL coaching is not defamatory per se, as ‘it does not prejudice the plaintiff or impute a lack of ability in his professions’ but could mean nothing more than that the plaintiff ‘did not fit in with’ the CHLL organization. 384 Ill.App.3d at 959, 324 Ill.Dec. 152, 895 N.E.2d 647.”
Green v. Rogers; Supreme Court of Illinois; No. 107129; 9/24/09


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