As I read the story the other day about the New Jersey junior varsity high school baseball coach who was sued for telling a kid to slide, shivers shot up my spine. I thought back to all those times as a youth-league coach when I instructed my players to slide into bases or to get in front of hard-hit balls. I put myself in the shoes of John Suk, the Bound Brook High School coach on trial, and a voice inside my head said: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’m sure I was not alone in those sentiments because anyone who has coached any sport at any level could empathize with Suk.
I am pleased to report that two Mondays ago, after a seven-year legal entanglement, a jury found Suk not liable for the horrific ankle injury suffered by his former player Jake Mesar during a game on April 4, 2012. I feel terribly for Mesar, now a 22-year-old student at Rutgers University, because the injury ended his promising athletic career and is something he’ll be dealing with, both physically and emotionally, for the rest of his life.
But Suk was not, as the million-dollar lawsuit claimed, negligent and reckless. He had merely instructed Mesar to hit the dirt on a “bang-bang” play at third base, and, sadly, the slide did not end well.
The ramifications of this landmark case are enormous.
“It’s the end of high school sports,’’ Suk told New Jersey Advance Media columnist Steve Politi when asked what would have happened had the jury found him liable. “The coaching profession would be under heavy scrutiny for everything that happens. Coaches are going to have to have insurance like doctors have for malpractice. School districts are not going to want to take the risk of having sports.”
And the impact on youth sports would have been even more devastating.
Again, I can sympathize with Mesar. He had made the JV baseball team as a freshman and already was slated to play varsity basketball as a sophomore. The injury ended his career, and has made his life extremely challenging. He has undergone five surgeries, and has suffered bouts of depression and panic attacks. One doctor called to the stand said amputation of Mesar’s lower leg had been considered.
His father, Rob Mesar, argued that this wasn’t a frivolous lawsuit filed by an overzealous parent. In fact, it was nuanced. Suk was attacked during the trial for being an inexperienced coach — he was less than a year out of college when the injury occurred. Prosecutors tried to make the case that Suk had not received proper instruction on how to coach specific baseball skills, including sliding. They argued that Suk waited too long to tell Jake to slide during that fateful game seven Aprils ago and that led to the gruesome injury.
The elder Mesar didn’t lay all the blame at Suk’s feet. He told Politi he just wanted accountability from the administrators who gave Suk the job without, as far as he was concerned, enough preparation to keep his son safe.
“You have people just making $8,000 (to coach high school sports) who don’t know what the hell they’re doing,’’ the elder Mesar told Politi. “Somebody’s got to be responsible. Nobody is!”
Clearly, proper coaching instruction is important. And the number one responsibility of any coach is the safety of his or her athletes. But to accuse Suk of being reckless and liable was wrong and would have opened up a can of worms bigger than a stadium. We’re already an overly litigious society. Had a different verdict been rendered in this case, youth sports parents would have become even more out of control. The only victors would have been the lawyers. The billable hours would have been staggering.
Jill Deitch, the chief legal officer for the governing body of New Jersey high school sports, estimated the insurance company representing Suk and his school spent more than $75,000 in legal fees to fight this case, and that didn’t include the scores of hours also logged by her staff. As Politi wrote, that was the price of drawing a line in the sand. “Coaches and athletic directors have so much to deal with,’’ Deitch said. “This kind of lawsuit second-guessing a coach’s decision should not be one of them.”
About 25 years ago, a softball teammate told me at the last second to slide into home on a make-shift diamond in Greece. I wound up catching my spikes in the dirt and broke my leg and ankle in seven places. I was in various casts for almost a year. The damage was permanent. An attorney acquaintance suggested I file a lawsuit against the town. He even broached the idea of suing the guy who waited too long to tell me to slide. He told me I probably could receive a settlement in the hundreds of thousands. I told him I wasn’t interested. I said I ultimately was responsible for my shattered leg; there is risk in every endeavor and I was fully aware of the risks of playing softball.
Yes, the guy who waited too long to tell me to slide had made a mistake. But it wasn’t malicious or intentional, and he felt as badly about it as I did.
It is extremely unfortunate what happened to Jake Mesar. But I agree with the seven of eight jurors who didn’t believe Coach Suk had put the teenager in danger on purpose. They got the call right.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.