The Fine Line Between Coaching and Bullying

Three former Galena High School football players have sued their coach, principal and also Washoe County School District, alleging that they were kicked off the school team for standing up to the coach’s bullying.

In the federal lawsuit filed, the three high schoolers state that they were kicked off the varsity football team after they stood up to Coach Steve Struzyk for taunting as well as demeaning them during a dispute about an over-the-counter supplement. The teens mentioned that Principal Tom Brown supported Struzyk by telling the players that bullying behavior is not allowed in the classroom yet it is OK on the football field.

Terri Keyser-Cooper who represents the three high school seniors Mateo Lemus, Bryan Madison and Jake Berger stated that the anti-bullying policy prohibits such double standard.

“Struzyk placed a trash can in the middle of the room and with dramatic flourish ripped up the captain’s papers for Lemus, Madison and Berger,” the lawsuit said. “Struzyk threw the ripped captains papers in a trash can he had positioned nearby. Struzyk condemned Lemus, Madison and Berger as a disgrace and unsuitable to be captains.”

A few days later, Struzyk called Lemus into his office and interrogated him about his use of the supplement and whether he sold it to other players, which Lemus denied. The lawsuit said the conversation took nearly 90 minutes as Struzyk berated Lemus, calling him a “cancer” on the team and belittling both his football and leadership skills.

When Lemus tried to defend himself, the coach became enraged.

“I’m not the kind of person to bend over and take this,” Lemus said.

“You better learn to bend over if I tell you to,” Struzyk responded.

As the conversation continued to spiral downhill from there, Lemus felt that he was being forced to leave the team. He handed over his football gear and thanked Struzyk for the opportunity to play.

The days that followed, Madison and Berger approached Struzyk, hoping to convince him to bring Lemus back on the team. Struzyk angrily rejected the idea and kicked them out of his office telling them to “turn their equipment in.”

When the boys and their parents asked principal Brown for help, Brown told them the language is just “football talk.” A district investigation into a bullying complaint filed by the players’ parents found “there is not enough corroborating evidence to substantiate” school personnel violated the district’s anti-bullying policies. Outside of the confrontation over the supplements, the players reported that abusive language by coaches was common during practices.

“What’s so really traumatic for these kids is they were all planning on getting football scholarships,” Keyser-Cooper said. “Football was an essential element of their life, to which they dedicated tremendous time and attention.

Based on the allegations alone, it seems unlikely the students lawsuit will have much standing. Look for the court to make a legal distinction, between the types of appropriate behavior and interactions with students, in the classroom, by teachers and school district employees, (where students are legally required to attend), and the type of behavior and actions, displayed on the football field, a voluntary and recreational activity.