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Team-employed accountability coach not ideal

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Due to the possible application of worker's compensation and agency law, a team-hired accountability coach may be an imperfect setup for players like Josh Hamilton.

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Josh Hamilton has reportedly suffered a relapse in his fight against addiction, meeting with MLB officials in New York after informing them of the problem. In a way, Hamilton's affirmative act to get ahead of this shows that he can hold himself accountable — in another, the problem itself justifies past hirings of an accountability coach for him. I don't mean to offer legal advice of any kind, and do not read anything on this page that way. It does seem to me, however, that if Hamilton were to have a full time accountability coach again — he "downsized" that role a year ago — he'd be a lot better off if the coach worked not for his team, but for him personally.

Jerry Narron served as an accountability coach for Hamilton while he was with the Reds and for a time with the Rangers -- and from what I can gather, Narron was a team employee during both of those stints. When Narron left to be the Brewers hitting coach, Hamilton's father-in-law was briefly employed by the Rangers to serve in the same role. Shayne Kelley soon took over for Hamilton's final season in Texas, later getting hired by the Angels after Hamilton signed his current deal.

Kelley parted ways with Hamilton and the Angels last year, and according to Alden Gonzalez, Hamilton decided to "limit the role" (not sure whether or not the decision precipitated Kelley's departure). Instead, the intent was for Hamilton to fill in the gap for road games with one of two personal acquaintances, with less of a day-to-day need for someone in that role back in Anaheim.

Hamilton's particular situation is his own, but I wonder if Hamilton's decision to scale the role back had anything to do with how the accountability coach got paid. An accountability coach's status as a co-employee has at least two unusual effects.

The first and probably less relevant one: workers' compensation. Workers' compensation laws function largely to ease access to compensation for many workers, making recovery more or less automatic without workers having to prove that their employers did something wrongful. The tradeoff is that workers may lose their ability to file a civil suit for damages (except for intentional torts, fraud, etc.). In many state jurisdictions, professional athletes are employees as defined by a workers' comp statute.

Teams frequently form employment relationships with "team physicians," which can be a boon to the doctor (who gets identified as a team physician frequently, even if she can't necessarily advertise that fact). But the team also benefits, perhaps with care at lower costs, but often also with what is essentially a shield against malpractice claims. Injured on the field, a player seeking medical care covered by workers' comp might have that injury made worse by a medical procedure — and if the doctor who administered that procedure is a co-employee, that additional harm is also covered by workers' comp. It could be the case that that athlete's exclusive remedy is a workers' comp claim (read more here).

I'm not entirely sure what "accountability coach" means (?), but to the extent a coach has certain contracted responsibilities, or responsibilities expected by the player to whom he is assigned, it seems at least theoretically possible that the coach could be liable in negligence if, say, he should have known that leaving the player in a hotel room with drugs all over the place might lead to harm to the player.

I'm not sure there's a whole lot there, other than to say: an accountability coach might help hold a player accountable, but there aren't as many ways for that coach to be held accountable as you might think — at least not to the player. And that leads us to the more interesting question.

Again, I'm not totally sure what an accountability coach is. But it seems to me that that person would be much more effective if in open and honest conversation with the player in question. It seems to me like that would be very important.

But as far as I know, there's no such thing as protected communications between a player and an accountability coach, as there might be if that player talked to a lawyer, doctor, psychologist or member of the clergy. That means that it is at least possible that if the team employing the accountability coach asked the coach about those communications, the coach could be under some pressure to share, and indeed might be compelled to do so.

Why? I think it could be argued that, say, in 2013 the Angels had the right to control the time, place and method of Shayne Kelley's work as an accountability coach. As an employee, Kelley would have been acting as an agent of the Angels with respect to Hamilton's sobriety. It's at least possible that by virtue of that relationship, Kelley could have been under a duty to disclose to the Angels all known relevant and material information that pertains to the scope of that agency. Maybe that would simply be Hamilton's sobriety, but maybe Hamilton's ability to play fits within that scope, too.

If disclosure of something that pertained to his sobriety might make a player too afraid to share it with his accountability coach — if that's even a possibility — then having the coach be an employee of the team seems less than ideal. There may be more than one way around those potential problems, but having the player hire the coach directly seems like the easiest one.

Even if he were to lose a chunk of his 2015 salary to a suspension, Josh Hamilton can afford an accountability coach's salary; and with this reported relapse, he may have a full-time accountability coach again. There's no reason to think that the Angels' hiring of a new accountability coach wouldn't help (and they did just hire Narron to coach in the minors); the old system which predated the 2014 season certainly seemed to. There may be fewer hazards, however, if the new coach worked for Hamilton directly.

. . .

All opinion above is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice.

Ryan P. Morrison is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score. He writes about the Arizona Diamondbacks at Inside the 'Zona, and talks D-backs and sabermetrics with co-author Jeff Wiser on The Pool Shot. Follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.