A number of area public high school football coaches, lacking the funding to maintain a full-time trainer or physician, said yesterday they may seek additional protection through personal insurance policies following Friday's award by a D.C. Superior Court jury of $1.5 million to a former Anacostia High School player.
Carl R. Greene, 26, a linebacker at Anacostia in 1974, claimed he lost the use of his left arm after his coach put him in a game knowing he was injured.
Several area coaches say they already have personal liability policies. Most are also covered by policies taken out through their school systems, teachers unions and coaching associations.
Seneca Valley's Al Thomas, one of the most successful football coaches in the area, said he has had a $1 million personal liability policy since 1977.
"We (coaches) are absolutely afraid of lawsuits," said Thomas, who originally bought the policy as protection when he installed a swimming pool in his backyard. "I think from now on, whenever you get a serious injury, you'll get a lawsuit. Lawsuits will definitely become more common."
"A lot of coaches out here (Northern Virginia) have personal policies," said Robinson Coach Ed Henry, who had a player, Jon Walsh, collapse and die after jogging on the first day of practice two years ago. "I don't have one, but I am covered through other policies. Most of us are covered through the National High School Coaches Association.
"A lawsuit at the time (of Walsh's death) never entered my mind . . . I don't know. At the time I didn't feel I'd done anything wrong, so I wasn't really concerned.
"All of us operate out of fear."
Friday's jury award could set a precedent here for holding a coach responsible for the medical fitness of his players. In this case, Greene, a linebacker, said he injured his left arm tackling a player during a practice in the dark and that Coach Wyman Colona negligently allowed him to play in a game two weeks later. Greene was reinjured in the game and his arm was permanently paralyzed.
In testimony, Colona contended Greene never reported a serious injury before the game. Colona and many former players and coaches testified that no practices were held during the dark, and that practices during the regular season did not include tackling. But others, including the defensive coach, testified that Colona discouraged reporting of injuries.
The attorney for the city, Joyce Notarius, could not be reached for comment yesterday. The city, which is required to pay the award, is expected to appeal the verdict.
"There is a fine line between a player being injured and a player who is just hurting," said Bobby Ross, football coach at the University of Maryland. "That leaves a tremendous responsibility on the coach, because he has to decide."
Many of a public school coach's decisions occur on the practice field because there are no qualified medical personnel present at the time. Without money to hire medical personnel to assure the protection of football players, coaches are required to diagnose player injuries, and run the risk of being held liable.
"There should be a paramedic or a doctor at every practice," said H.D. Woodson Coach Bob Headen. "We (coaches) aren't qualified to decide to what extent a player is hurt. I don't think any coach will put injured players on the field.
" . . . Most of the teams in the (Interhigh) league don't have trainers," he said. "And if someone requires us to get them, we don't have any money, so that will be it for D.C. public school athletics."
Jim Tillerson, football coach at Theodore Roosevelt and president of the D.C. Coaches Association, and Headen, the former president, said they were concerned with the jury's decision because they believe few, if any, coaches knowingly will play an injured player.
"I've played Wyman Colona's teams and he believed in his players," Headen said. "No coach wants to see his players hurt. This type of thing will make a lot of coaches wary of even the slightest injury.
"Since I'm the only (football) coach in my building, I can tell you now, my teams won't be as large as they've been in the past and there won't be a junior varsity at H.D. Woodson. There are few qualified coaches around as it is.
"There'll be an extra burden on (D.C. Public Schools Athletic Director) Otto Jordan's office, too. We'll make sure we get the best equipment, facilities, etc."
Tillerson said the D.C. Coaches Association has considered getting personal liability policies for several years.
"This (decision) might speed it up," Tillerson said. "We've been lucky all these years. It's tough to get licensed trainers for every school, but we're trying to set up a program with a local physician who will keep his office open during football practice hours for us.
"We have 11 schools now, but he plans to have interns or qualified persons who can give aid to any injured players."
Student trainers are used successfully in the suburbs, including most Fairfax County schools, Henry said.
"Our trainer, Larry Nottingham, works with several students who are interested in the student trainer program," Henry said. "That really is a big help to the football program as well as the other sports. I tell them all the time, there is a bigger opportunity in that than there is in being a football player."
"In Fairfax County, we have a full-time trainer and a doctor at every game," said Madison Coach Chuck Sell. "But serious injuries can still happen . . . We just have to try to protect ourselves the best we can."