Sports. Webster’s defines sports as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other.” By definition, then, sports are a physical activity involving competition—both simple and beautiful at its core.
Competition, however, results in a winner and a loser. It is at this point that the rudimentary concept of sports is frequently abandoned. Pride and the pressure to win cast a dark shadow over the intended meaning of the ancient noun, and (unfortunately) elevate it to levels far beyond its intended significance.
The fans, as a whole, are the most serious offenders of promoting this unintended transformation. Take a look around any sporting venue in the world as the clock ticks down to zero, and you’ll see the full spectrum of human emotions—even those of the paralyzing variety—all triggered by an obsession with winning. Fans have a tendency to regress to tribal, even savage, levels when their team relocates or favorite player betrays them. One student body has even cornered the market of destroying leisure furniture as a solemn rite of exorcising the sports gods.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] The fans, as a whole, are the most serious offenders of promoting this unintended transformation. [/pullquote]
That said, the societal pressures of winning extend far beyond the bleachers and the walls of the family room and permeate the walls of the locker room. Participants, consequently, will engage in rituals to establish the worthiness/willingness of a teammate. The rituals cross all spectral levels, from classic verbal bullying to—yes—the brandishing of firearms.
And what about the coaches? Coaches are often hired or appointed as a medium between fanning the flames of public expectations and maintaining player focus on the fundamentals/principles of the game. How often do we hear the spirited locker room speech “don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside of these walls” in one form or another? It is coachspeak in high frequency.
All too often, however, are such statements disingenuous. Coaches—those that we trust will remain stoic and unwavering in the face of pressure—are often the first to crumble. The unbearable weight of losing may produce irrational emotional output unfit for any walk of life, let alone the playing field. Just like the fans and players, coaches too will resolve to primal nature in effort to win. Some will even call it as much. Time and time again we are reminded that our coaches are failing to meet the rational standards we expect of them.
Last December 22 was our latest reminder. It may have even been the most heinous reminder to date. At that time, at a remote cabin on the outskirts of Gatlinburg, TN, veteran members of Ooltewah High School boys basketball team sexually assaulted one of their rookie teammates. According to the police report of the incident, two 16-year-old sophomores and a 17-year-old senior member of the team had locked the door to a downstairs bedroom and overpowered a freshman member, wrestling him onto a bed (all three of the teens admitted to their roles in the attack).
One of the 16-year-olds told police that he held his freshman teammate down on the bed by lying across his back, while the other 16-year-old held down the freshmen by the hips. The 17-year-old then pressed a pool cue against the freshman’s clothing with so much force that it broke through the teen’s clothing and penetrated his rectum.
Ooltewah Head Coach Andre Montgomery and assistant coach Karl Williams (both upstairs in the rental cabin at the time) were cleaning up after dinner when they heard screams. Both coaches went downstairs to find the assaulted freshman covered in blood, urine and feces.
What happened next, however, may be the most damning. Neither Coach Montgomery nor Coach Williams called the police or notified any authority. In fact, the police were not notified of the incident until almost five and a half hours had elapsed. The police were contacted—not by Montgomery or Williams—but rather by Leconte Medical Center staff (the medical facility where the young freshman was first taken for treatment).
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Neither Coach Montgomery nor Coach Williams called the police or notified any authority. [/pullquote]
The fallout has been quick and swift among public outcry. Ooltewah recently cancelled the remainder its basketball season. Both Montgomery and Williams were suspended without pay. Athletic Director Allard “Jesse” Nayadley (who’s knowledge of the incident remains unclear at the moment) was also suspended without pay. Rick Smith, Hamilton County Superintendent, has come under fire for allowing the team to compete in the Gatlinburg tournament despite knowledge of the incident. Smith recently agreed to accept a buyout of his contract.
On January 13, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office filed a criminal complaint charging Montgomery, Williams and Nayadley with failing to report the sexual abuse, a Class A misdemeanor under Tennessee Law (Ann. Code §§ 37-1-403; 37-1-605). The complaint is supported by the affidavits of criminal investigator Lisa Mathis and detective Mickey Rountree.
Tennessee, along with 47 other states, has a mandatory child sexual abuse reporting requirement. Like several other of its sister states, lists individuals (by profession) who are required to report instances of sexual abuse. Such professionals range from schoolteachers to doctors.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] The Tennessee law states that “any person who has knowledge that a child has been harmed by abuse or neglect must report.” [/pullquote]
Of note, however, is that Tennessee’s list is not exhaustive in its initial delineation of those professionals required to report. A review of the law indicates that “other persons” are also required to report—suggesting that one’s professional affiliation is not necessarily the determinative factor. In fact, it explicitly reads “any person who has knowledge that a child has been harmed by abuse or neglect must report.”
The nuances of Tennessee’s reporting statute do not end there. A report is required when:
- A person has knowledge that a child has been harmed by abuse or neglect.
- A person is called upon to render aid to any child who is suffering from an injury that reasonably appears to have been caused by abuse.
- A person knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been sexually abused.
- A physician diagnoses or treats any sexually transmitted disease in a child age 13 or younger or diagnoses pregnancy in an unemancipated minor.
- Any school official, personnel, employee, or member of the board of education who is aware of a report or investigation of employee misconduct on the part of any employee of the school system that in any way involves known or alleged child abuse, including, but not limited to, child physical or sexual abuse or neglect, shall immediately upon knowledge of such information notify the Department of Children’s Services or law enforcement official of the abuse or alleged abuse.
If the initial reports prove true, Montgomery and Williams will almost certainly be found to have had actual knowledge of the abuse, triggering their respective duty to report. What remains unclear is whether Athletic Director Nayadlay also had actual knowledge or “reasonable cause to suspect” that the freshman had been abused.
The question then becomes: what is “reasonable”? Reasonability, a mainstay in virtually every area of criminal and civil law, is an objective standard. That standard is not explicit and is open to interpretation, however—and becomes a question for the finder of fact (judge or jury).
According to Nayadlay’s attorney, Lee Davis, Nayadlay was not present at the rental cabin at the time of the incident. What will be significant, then, will be whether Montgomery and/or Williams notified Nayadlay, when Nayadlay was notified, and if so, whether Nayadlay made any attempt to notify law enforcement and/or other agency recognized under the reporting statute. It is also important to note that Nayadlay has a 15-year old son on the team—another potential source of knowledge of the incident.
Davis recently filed a motion to dismiss the criminal complaint alleging that Nayadlay had no knowledge (the motion was denied). Davis told the court that Nayadlay immediately notified the principal, who in turn notified the Smith’s office. Davis insinuated that if Nayadlay was found criminally responsible for failing to report, other school officials should be as well.
It also remains unclear whether any additional individuals will be charged for failing to report. To that extent, it is further unknown whether any additionally charged individuals will assert a defense based on privilege. Privileges, asserted as a defense for failure to report, include communications between physican/patient, husband/wife, attorney/client, and clergy/penitent, among others. All but three states (Connecticut, Mississippi and New Jersey) currently address the issue of privileged communications within their reporting laws. Tennessee expressly declines to recognize privilege between husband/wife, physiatrist/patient, and psychologist/patient. Other privileges may be asserted, however. At this time, there have not been any individuals identified as having knowledge that would be in a position to assert a defense based on privilege.
For now, all three officials are scheduled to appear before Judge Rob Philyaw in the Juvenile Court of Hamilton County on February 15. Each of the three individuals will then have the opportunity to plead. Under Tennessee law, failing to report carries consequences of (1) 11 months and 29 days in jail; (2) a fine of up to $2,500, or both. However, should an individual plead guilty, the Court shall sentence the individual with a fine not to exceed $2,500.
It does not appear, then, that a guilty plea will carry any jail time. It should be expected, as a result, that Montgomery and Williams will plead guilty to avoid jail time. If any of the officials pleads not guilty, the case will then go to a grand jury—who then determines if formal criminal charges will be filed. The wildcard will almost certainly be Nayadlay, who has steadfastly maintained a lack of knowledge from the inception. Witness subpoenas have already been issued to haul in witnesses with further information. Document subpoenas are certain to follow.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Scholarships may be lost, as may more jobs. [/pullquote]
The debate as to whether failure to report should have criminal ramifications will undoubtedly rage on. The argument against criminal liability for failure to report child sexual abuse is firmly rooted in common law principles—why should one, who has not committed the criminal act or conspired to commit the criminal act, be held accountable under the law? A mother of one child on the team said as much. The counter-argument, however, is firmly rooted in the public policy behind unfettered protection of the safety and welfare of children—many of who are defenseless.
As the story unfolds, camps will divide (they already are), and there will undoubtedly be apologists for the Ooltewah program, the players and coaches. Fans and players will question why the season was cancelled. Scholarships may be lost, as may more jobs. The fallout will affect many beyond the gymnasium. While the debate ensues, though, we must avoid the common pitfall of losing focus on the true victim: the child.
It is also imperative that we address the cause of the tragedy. How did we get here? What propels young men to act in such a way? Why would a coach turn his head the other way? The pressures to win and establish a winning culture certainly promote such irrational behavior. It is easy to blame those in the inner circle. One source of the pressure, though, may be a prudent starting point—the fans. Are we to blame?