By Tim Eberly
A former women's basketball player at Montana State University-Northern filed a lawsuit Monday against her former school, coach and athletic trainer, saying all three contributed to the demise of her athletic career.
Jana Smith, a guard who played for the MSU-N women's basketball team during the 1999-2000 season, filed a civil suit in District Court in Hill County, asking for an unspecified amount of damages. The suit claims she was pressured into playing through a serious knee injury during her freshman year in college.
The lawsuit says MSU-N's former coach, Ray Peters, intimidated Smith and used his position of trust and authority to get her to play after she suffered a fractured right kneecap.
The 1999-2000 season was Peters' final year at MSU-N. Peters, whom MSU-N athletic director Ted Spatkowski said is now living in Olympia, Wash., could not be reached for comment.
The suit said Robert Denning, then an athletic trainer for the Skylights, dissuaded Smith from getting an MRI when her knee injury persisted.
Before one of her final games at MSU-N, Smith felt "Denning and Peters put her in a position to play in the upcoming game or (her) basketball career would be done," the lawsuit said.
From 1993-2001, Denning worked as the Skylights trainer before moving to Billings.
"I've never coerced any athlete into playing," Denning, 35, said today. "I've always treated the athletes like they were my own kids. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize their health."
MSU-N is also named in the lawsuit because "it has a duty to supervise its employees, Peters and Denning, so that they exercise reasonable care," the lawsuit said.
A spokeswoman for MSU, Cathy Conover, said she was not aware of the lawsuit and could not comment on it.
Since the injury, the 21-year-old Smith has had four knee surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation, the suit said. She is a medical redshirt on the MSU-Bozeman's basketball team.
"She's on the team. She's incapable of participation right now," Smith's attorney, Tom White, said. "She still has severe pain that prevents her from participating."
Smith declined comment through her attorney.
Smith, a native of Ronan, first injured her knee while playing in a game against Carroll College on Feb. 19, 2000. The suit said she was coerced into playing in the next three games, with Peters repeatedly telling her to "forget about the knee and play for the team."
"I can't believe the coach would say that to her," Spatkowski said Wednesday. "That's not how we operate."
In the last game of her brief career at MSU-N, while playing against Westminster College in the Frontier Conference Tournament, Smith drove to the basket, felt her knee pop and fell to the ground, the suit said.