Listen up, coaches: Watch out for hidden recording devices

Smartphones with recording devices can be found almost anywhere.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

TSA-like searches and patdowns might be coming to high school athletics. Coaches, it seems, need some way to defend themselves against the use of recording devices being used to surreptitiously — and perhaps illegally — record their comments in a clubhouse or locker room setting.

Last week, Larry McCann of Anaheim Esperanza became at least the second Southland high school baseball coach in two seasons to be forced out after a secret recording of a clubhouse speech.

In McCann’s case, the audio came from an April 11 meeting after his team’s record dropped to 3-12. In a copy of the 15-minute recording obtained by The Times, the coach can be heard criticizing his players for their conduct, from the “disrespectful” way they lined up and acted during a playing of the national anthem to their lack of hustle and poor fundamentals during the game.


He also reminds them that, as a team, they are not only personally responsible for their own actions, but also have a responsibility to keep each other in line.

In one example, he refers to a player — not by name — who he says needs to be reined in by his teammates. In doing so, he uses the term “choke him,” but then quickly clarifies that he’s not calling for any kind of physical confrontation, saying, “I don’t mean choke him — straighten him out.”

Message-wise, McCann, who was in his first season as Esperanza’s head coach, didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said by thousands of sensible coaches a million times. And his language? He says “ass” once and “crap” once — words tame enough to be used in prime-time network television and this newspaper. It was not a tirade.

It’s hard to believe that a coach could be fired based solely on the contents of that recording, yet McCann says that was the reason he was given. Principal Ken Fox said he could not comment on a personnel matter.

Before last season, Granada Hills’ first-year baseball coach, Reggie Smith Jr., said he was fired after a secret recording in which he used profanity while talking to his team.

Ironically, Smith said he was “commended” on the speech to his team by school administrators. “I was praised for the content and character of my speech. I was fired because somebody turned in the recording. I had curse words in it.”


Whether or not you back the coaches in these instances, there is this: According to the California Education Code 51512, “The Legislature finds that the use by any person, including a pupil, of any electronic listening or recording device in any classroom of the elementary and secondary schools without the prior consent of the teacher and the principal of the school given to promote an educational purpose disrupts and impairs the teaching process and discipline in the elementary and secondary schools, and such use is prohibited.”

But is a locker room or clubhouse considered a classroom? A Los Angeles Unified School District attorney said through a district spokesman that as long as a coach is instructing, the Education Code prohibition against recording applies.

Yet the coaches lost their jobs. Smith said he went to the LAPD to discuss filing a complaint but decided not to press charges against the student who made the recording.

Ben Forer, a deputy Los Angeles District Attorney in the cybercrimes division, said taping people in a baseball clubhouse might not be a criminal act because “it may not be considered a confidential communication.”

There’s no doubt there are instances when people may feel they are justified in using secret recordings to catch people, including coaches, engaging in unethical or abusive behavior.

Smith said he was given a suggestion by Granada Hills administrators: “Have the kids turn in their phones,” Smith said. “I didn’t know I needed to have a rule, because I was just talking to the kids.”


McCann said he did have a rule against the use of phones and recording devices in the clubhouse. But it didn’t stop what happened.

What’s clear is despite laws in California making it illegal to record someone privately without their permission, coaches need to understand that smartphones with recording devices are everywhere.

Derwin Henderson, an LAPD sergeant who is the football coach at Hawthorne High, said when he addresses his players, “I don’t have an expectation of privacy.”

Lorenzo Hernandez, the football coach at Garfield High, said, “I think the times have changed so much you have to be very cautious. I always assume that we’re being recorded in some shape or form.”

To protect themselves, maybe coaches should announce, “This is a private conversation.”

David Snyder, executive director of the 1st Amendment Coalition, said, “Everyone has a cellphone. Everyone has a camera that can take both video and still pictures, and everyone has access to the Internet and a platform to broadcast across the world. Does that mean every student-coach relationship should be prefaced by a warning they should not record?”

Snyder paused to consider his own question. That would be “extreme,” he said, “but if the goal is to preserve a close relationship between coach and student, [it might be] necessary.”


To read the article in Spanish, click here

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