In both professional and college sports, athletes are feeling more empowered than ever before. Whether it’s by demanding trades, entering the transfer portal, holding out of training camp, or leveraging NIL opportunities, it’s never been a better time for athletes to advocate for themselves both on and off the field. While this is generally a great thing for sports as a whole, it’s something front offices, administrators, and coaches need to be cognizant of.
An example of why this is the case came from the great sport of college baseball in the last week. Current Alabama head coach Brad Bohannan (and two staffers) and former Radford head coach (current Charleston Southern assistant) Karl Kuhn were sued by former players for how they were handled by said coaches. Let’s dive into each case separately before tying them together at the end.
Let’s start with Alabama. Head coach Brad Bohannan, pitching coach Jason Jackson, and athletic trainer Sean Stryker have been sued for alleged negligence, wantonness, and breach of agreement for the handling of an injury to former player Johnny Blake Bennett.
The lawsuit alleged Bennett repeatedly told Bohannon, Jackson, and Stryker about issues with his arm in 2019 and that he was not provided with proper medical care. Bennett was later diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and had surgery in March 2020. According to the lawsuit, Bohannon called months later while Bennett was rehabbing from the injury to tell him his scholarship was not going to be renewed for the following season.
Bennett then transferred to Pensacola State College, a junior college program, where he eventually withdrew because of "intense, stressful fear of failure and anxiety each time he pitched," according to the lawsuit. Following that, he made his way back to Division 1 Baseball when he transferred to Jacksonville State but was dismissed without explanation from JSU two days after playing Alabama in May of 2022, per the lawsuit.
The first complaint was filed on Sept. 19, 2022, and the defense filed a motion to dismiss on Dec. 19, 2022. An amended complaint was filed on March 10, 2023, and the new motion to dismiss was filed on March 31, 2023.
Bohannan is in his sixth year at Alabama where he has done a solid job in getting the Crimson Tide program back to relevancy in the rugged Southeastern Conference. However, with only one NCAA Tournament appearance in his tenure, pressure is beginning to mount on Bohannan. From all accounts, the Alabama head coach is an excellent man who is revered in the coaching community. It’s unclear how this situation will be resolved or if it will impact Bohannan’s status in Tuscaloosa, but it’s never a good thing to be associated with these types of allegations.
In moving to former Radford head coach Karl Kuhn, the situation is a little more complex and unfortunately appears to have affected more than one player.
Attorneys for an anonymous former Radford University baseball player filed a federal lawsuit against Kuhn and the school’s current athletic director Robert Lineburg. Kuhn, who has since left Radford and is now an assistant at Charleston Southern University, is accused of costing the player a year of college eligibility by using him in a game late in the 2021 season “as retaliation for leading a group of players to complain about his season-long verbal abuse, indifference to players’ mental and physical health, and racial animus.”
Before Kuhn inserted said player into the game in question, the player had not been used in any prior 2021 games, so being inserted in that game meant he was giving up that year of eligibility. Days after using the player in that game, Kuhn cut the player from the team and revoked his scholarship, according to the lawsuit.
In addition to Kuhn, the lawsuit accuses Lineburg, who is still the athletic director at Radford, of “refusing to investigate Kuhn, refusing to act on Doe’s complaints, and allowing Doe’s complaints — purportedly made in confidence — to be leaked to Kuhn.”
The player filing the lawsuit eventually transferred away from Radford to another college, according to the lawsuit, but lost about $100,000 because his new scholarship failed to match his old scholarship amount. In college baseball, each Division 1 program is only able to provide 11.7 scholarships to 27 players, so each school has different parameters on how much they can offer to their players.
The player is seeking undisclosed compensatory damages for the lost year of eligibility and his diminished scholarship, as well as undisclosed punitive damages. In addition, according to the lawsuit, the player also wants Kuhn and Lineburg to cooperate with him in his appeal to the NCAA to grant him back that year of eligibility and for Kuhn and Lineburg to undergo First Amendment training.
While both situations are unique and have different particulars and allegations, there is an overarching lesson to learn from both of them. Coaches and administrators can’t exploit players or treat them poorly like they may have been able to get away with in previous generations.
First of all, let me state that this is a good thing for college sports and sports as a whole. While their ultimate job description is to win games, there are a large majority of coaches and administrators out there that go above and beyond to create great experiences for their players while on campus. But for those who don’t, legal ramifications could be in store as recent and future court decisions are lending more favorable outcomes for college athletes.
This isn’t calling out Bohannan, Jackson, Stryker, and Kuhn as bad apples. For all we know, these allegations might not entail the whole truth and there could be another side to these stories. That will all play out as the legal process unfolds. However, one thing is true: the days of treating players poorly and getting away with it are long gone, as they should be. These are just two examples of a long line of recent lawsuits against schools, administrators, and coaches. Hopefully, we won’t see many more in the future.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5