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A Georgia Tech football player may have convinced his mother that he was assaulted during football practice, but experts say he will have a tougher time convincing a judge. Second-string offensive tackle Dustin Vaitekunas, 20, claims Georgia Institute of Technology football coach George O’Leary had four players line up about six yards away from him and then tackle him all at once. It was, he says, a punishment for having missed a block during practice Sept. 25. Vaitekunas, one of the most heavily recruited high-school linemen in 1998, lay prone on the field for about 15 minutes while the team physician examined him. The next day Vaitekunas took the train back to his mother’s home near Columbia, S.C. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Vaitekunas’ mother called the hits assault and battery, and said she would file criminal charges. In a news conference Tuesday O’Leary called them the result of a misunderstanding. Some experts in sports law called any potential case a long shot. SUIT POSSIBILITY DISCOUNTED Gary R. Roberts, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University, and a former associate of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, called criminal charges and any potential civil suit “preposterous.” Unless a coach is doing something well outside of the normal context of the sport, he says, he isn’t liable criminally or civilly. “The courts are going to give enormous leeway to the coaches, to the players, to the general conduct of games and practice,” he says. “This conduct is not out of line with that culture, and the kids know it, and the courts know it.” When a player consents to play football, he says, he assumes not just the risk that he might get hit, but also the risk he might get hurt. No one forces anyone to play football and be exposed to the dangers the sport poses, he says. Vaitekunas, too, had an option. “At the time he did it the kid was free to walk off the field and say ‘Coach, I quit,’ ” he says. DISCIPLINE CASE Discipline can be tough for players who do not do their jobs, he says. Subjecting a player to a string of hits to illustrate what happens to a back when a lineman misses a block is not all that unusual, Roberts says. And when a scholarship player is not performing well enough to help the team, incentives like this can spark a player to try harder or to quit, and so free the scholarship up for another player. “There is a long tradition in sports of humiliating or embarrassing kids who screw up,” Roberts says. Coaches have much leeway to determine acceptable punishment during football practice, Roberts says. Criminal charges would require an exceptional leap over the line between punishment and assault, he says. “If the coach ordered the other players to take metal pipes and start beating him over the head with them, then maybe they would have a case,” he says. “I don’t think Vaitekunas has a very good case looking at the assumption of risk theories in Georgia,” says Emerson Carey Jr., a sports law practitioner at Carey & Dobbs. “In football you go out there expecting to hit and expecting to be hit.” “This is the first time I’ve ever heard about things like this happening,” says Rod Dowhower, quarterback coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. When a player doesn’t do his job in the pros the solution is simple, he says. “They’re replaced.” TECH DEFENDS O’LEARY O’Leary did not single out Vaitekunas for punishment, says Robert T. Harty, executive director of communications and public relations at Georgia Tech. He wanted to show how quickly good defensive linemen could reach a quarterback following a missed assignment, Harty says. “Coach O’Leary was trying to impress on the team, and on the offensive line especially, the ramifications of missing an assignment or allowing a defensive lineman through the line unscathed,” he says. O’Leary had the four players rush both second-string linemen, Harty says. O’Leary mistakenly assumed the players would treat Vaitekunas as a quarterback. Quarterbacks are usually off-limits to hits during O’Leary’s practice. After the players hit Vaitekunas, O’Leary made his will clear before they rushed the second player, whom they did not tackle, Harty says. O’Leary has done this sort of thing during practice in the past, and he will likely do it again, although more carefully, Harty says. “Apparently they weren’t having one of their better practices that day,” he says. No charges had been brought, nor suits filed as of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Harty says. The 6-foot, 7-inch, 314-pound redshirt sophomore was treated for pain by the team physician. O’Leary also checked on his player’s condition after practice and the following morning, Harty says. Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Mark V. Spix says criminal charges would be a stretch, but that the family might have a legitimate civil suit. “The rumblings of emotional damage and physical damage sounds surprisingly like the elements of damage in a civil lawsuit,” he says. “There are 9,000 lawyers who would be happy to be entertained with civil suits. Just open the Yellow Pages.” Spix, a certified sports agent for Major League Baseball, says the coach and the school ought to be civilly responsible for what happens on the practice field. “I could see him going to lawyers and pursuing a civil action,” he says. “I think the school ought to look hard at a method of discipline that permits that.” One obstacle to a civil suit, Spix says, is the damages Vaitekunas sustained during the drill. “Here, what are your damages? Hurt feelings? Maybe a visit to the doctor. An extra long train ride,” Spix says.

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