New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Alberto Salazar, assumption of risk, Mary Cain, Nike, Running

 

November 19th, 2019

Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar and Coaching Malpractice

Ahh, I get to do a post on both running and the law! My sweet spot. Let’s have at it then, with the scandal roiling the running world and see how it fits into a legal framework.

The Players

Alberto Salazar was the world’s greatest marathon runner, winning New York three straight times from 1980-1982, and winning Boston in 1982 in an epic Duel in the Sun.

As a bona fide legend, he moved on to coaching, leading up to being the head coach of the vaunted Nike Oregon Project, training some of the best runners in the world.

This was not just any coaching facility, of course. Nike poured money into equipment and studies well beyond the means of any amateur, and most professionals, including the removal of oxygen from a room to simulate high altitude conditions, which can benefit runners. The Wikipedia synopsis:

In addition to the simulated altitude training, special software was used to monitor electrodes attached to the athletes, determining what condition they were in and how far or fast they could train. They used underwater and low-gravity treadmills. They also had a collaboration with Colorado Altitude Training (CAT), a company specializing in hypoxic athletic training, for their training equipment.

Mary Cain was one of his athletes. Born in 1996, well after Salazar had raced to greatness, she was arguably the best high school track star in the country. And a straight-A student.

She signed with Nike in 2013 and went off to Oregon to train with Salazar as a college freshman.

But she didn’t see the scandal coming. Nobody ever does.

The Problem

In a video op-ed (embedded below) in the New York Times last week (I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike) Cain tells a harrowing story of her time spent with Nike and Salazar. She was directed to become thinner and thinner and thinner, and ultimately developed an eating disorder.

Much of her training was, apparently, the same as the boys. And therein lies a problem. Because boys and girls are physiologically different.

When girls get pushed into a boy’s training program they run the risk of their bodies breaking down. Because it has a negative effect on estrogen levels, which has its repercussions in bone density loss, among other problems. Bones become more susceptible to breaking. That is what happened to Cain due to Salazar constantly badgering her and trying to humiliate her into losing weight.

After months of dieting and frustration, Cain found herself choosing between training with the best team in the world, or potentially developing osteoporosis or even infertility. She lost her period for three years and broke five bones. She went from being a once-in-a-generation Olympic hopeful to having suicidal thoughts.

Nike and Salazar held themselves out as experts and specialists. Yet what they were doing was injuring the young women who had placed their trust in them. And not just Cain.

Kara Goucher, an Olympic distance runner who trained with the same program under Salazar until 2011, said she experienced a similar environment, with teammates weighed in front of one another.

Goucher went on to explain that, “When you’re training in a program like this, you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there, how anyone would want to be there, and it’s this weird feeling of, ‘Well, then, I can’t leave it. Who am I without it?’ When someone proposes something you don’t want to do, whether it’s weight loss or drugs, you wonder, ‘Is this what it takes? Maybe it is, and I don’t want to have regrets.’ Your careers are so short. You are desperate. You want to capitalize on your career, but you’re not sure at what cost.”

How may others will come forward in this athletic version of #MeToo remains to be seen.

Cain’s seven-minute video op-ed describes the abusive system she was under. At 16 she got the call from Salazar and in college went off to train with him, in order “to become the best female athlete ever.” Instead, she says, she was physically and emotionally abused in a system endorsed by Nike.

The top running program in the country had no female coaches, no sports psychologists, no nutritionists. He wanted to give her birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight (the latter of which is not allowed in track and field).

With the eating disorder and injuries she became suicidal, starting cutting herself. She told Salazar. Who told her to go to bed.

Cain is now advocating for women coaches who appreciate the physiological differences between men and women and know they have to be trained differently. People who know how to build strong women’s bodies not just to race tomorrow, but for the long haul.

So. What would a lawsuit look like if Cain sued Nike for negligence?

The Legal Framework

I probably wouldn’t have done the analysis below if I hadn’t read a post from my buddy Scott Greenfield, wherein he was dismissive of Cain’s complaint. He wrote that athletes like Cain make their own decisions to try to be the fastest and to win, and that comes with the trade-offs of loss and injury. They need, therefore, to take personal responsibility for their choices and the risks they undertook to push themselves to get there. Who would deny them the agency to make their own choices? (See: Run for your Life)

You don’t have to suffer this abuse, but then, when you’re a world-class athlete and the tiniest edge distinguishes the podium from the pack, you want to do whatever it takes to win. You’ve learned to lose, and it sucked.

In one of the comments about whether the coach should know better, he writes that:

this is about world-class athletes who push themselves to be the best ever. Complaining about the trade-off afterward is facile. And much as parents and athletes trust their coach, it’s not to “know better,” but to win. If their paramount concern was their well-being, they would have stayed home.

This rang a bell in my head and lead me to think of the “What if” potential for a Cain suit. Greenfield doesn’t use the words “assumption of risk” (as he isn’t using the post to undertake a legal analysis) but that is nevertheless a theme: You made a decision to compete in x, and x has its risks, and you got hurt. Don’t blame others.

Assumption of risk is an old concept here in New York (and elsewhere). It applies to the bike racer who hits a pothole in the street, the ice skater who falls and breaks a wrist, and the fan in the stands injured by a foul ball.

Fundamentally, primary assumption of risk will supersede an act of negligence by the creator or supervisor of an athletic event. So even if there’s negligence, the suit will get tossed if the participant assumes the foreseeable risks.

It was best summarized by Justice Benjamin Cardozo in Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement in 1929 when someone flopped off a moving belt ride that stops and starts, known as The Flopper. Cardoza wrote:

A fall was foreseen as one of the risks of the adventure. There would have been no point to the whole thing, no adventure about it, if the risk had not been there. The very name above the gate, the Flopper, was warning to the timid….

…One who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of a thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contact with the ball 

(And a little side note as Justice Cardozo continues on — I wish judges still wrote like this)

The antics of the clown are not the paces of the cloistered cleric. The rough and boisterous joke, the horseplay of the crowd, evokes its own guffaws, but they are not the pleasures of tranquility. The plaintiff was not seeking a retreat for meditation. Visitors were tumbling about the belt to the merriment of onlookers when he made his choice to join them. He took the chance of a like fate, with whatever damage to his body might ensue from such a fall. The timorous may stay at home.

That last phrase at the end, “The timorous may stay at home,” has been oft-quoted. Indeed, I use it myself in a Disclaimer for the trail race that I put on each year, trying to use wording that evokes the spirit (if not the exquisite style) of Cardozo’s assumption of risk summary.

Given that I’m a runner, and a race director, and a lawyer that does personal injury law, this stuff forms a trifecta of interest to me and (to the extent you are likewise interested) you can see some of the ways this subject has previously come up in my little corner of cyberspace with snowboardingsoftball practicehorseback riding, auto racingwater slides and lacrosse.

But is that what’s going on here with Cain and Salazar? Was she hurt in competition, or even during training? She wasn’t injured, for example, by falling when she crashed into another runner fiercely powering through a turn. Most every case I’ve ever read on the primary assumption of risk doctrine deals with a specific incident, and whether the thing that caused the injury was an anticipated or appreciated risk.

Mary Cain doesn’t deal with a particular incident or an appreciated risk. She went for expert advice, as many might do for a doctor, lawyer or car mechanic. We seek out people with specialized skills and talents because we don’t have them ourselves. If they sound like they know what they’re doing, or have been highly recommended by others, we hire them.

Nike and Salazar were supposed to be the best. Top of the heap. Cain reasonably hired them and followed their advice. Salazar, after all, had been at this for decades.

But their advice was not just bad, it was apparently dangerous, and dangerous in unanticipated ways. Cain faced medical issues that would not have been apparent to her. And Salazar and Nike provided no help when faced with them.

I would not discuss this in the language of assumption of risk, but rather, of coaching malpractice. It’s negligence, or even recklessness.

Would such a case survive a motion to dismiss?

The legal analysis, if it were ever to come to that, would pit these two essential concepts against each other: Was she a negligence victim, with Coach Salazar directing her to perilous conduct (unknown to her) that no reasonable coach would direct? And even if she was, would assumption of risk apply, with Cain accepting known dangers inherent in athletic competition, resulting in such a suit being tossed?

To me that answer is clear: Creating an eating disorder that would have long-term harmful effects on the athlete was not part of any known training program. It was not an anticipated hazard she could evaluate and appreciate before signing on with Nike. And any reasonable coach would have, had the issue arisen, immediately brought in psychologists, physicians or nutritionists as needed if one of their charges was having that problem.

Salazar, ultimately was suspended for four years for drug doping. The Nike program has been disbanded (for now). Nike’s CEO stepped down. And Cain went public with the abuse she underwent.

The extent to which the athletes under Salazar/Nike’s charge knew they were being doped by Salazar and Nike remains unknown.

Some may believe that the doping and the starving are two different things. But I’m not so sure, as both entail athletes who have placed their faith in the expert, and been told by them to eat (or not eat) certain things without knowing, understanding, or appreciating that it was dangerous conduct as the risks were not explained.

It’s simplistic, I believe, to think that a teenage athlete would have more knowledge than a legendary runner and coach with decades of experience. He was hired, and trusted, due to those decades of experience, his advice and skillset. And he betrayed the trust.

Her video op-ed is here:

5 thoughts on “Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar and Coaching Malpractice

  1. This case was made all the more horrible because, as a minor female, she most likely attributed magical father-like qualities to Salazar, hence making it more abusive than mere “baseline” abuse of a teen.

    Where were her parents in all this? Did they also have Nike Swoosh in their eyes? A mother knows when her child is suffering.

    Sad story.

  2. The assumption of the risk analysis is also inapplicable for another reason. When an athlete assumes a risk, he or she assumes the risks “inherent to the sport.” Having an irresponsible or ignorant coach is not a risk inherent to the sport. What the other author is saying is not that; it is that the athlete had the choice to leave when she felt like it. Whether that is true under the circumstances, however, is a question of fact for the jury so I’d say we can survive the motion to dismiss.

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