Another Buffer Zone Concern at Sports Facilities

Dec 2, 2022

By Gil Fried, Professor/Chair, University of West Florida

Buffer zone safety has been discussed in these pages over the years.  The focus is often whether there is enough room around a basketball court or whether there is enough room around a football or soccer field.  The issue has grown in importance over the last several years due to the increased use of technology.  Now the issue is not walls and whether there is padding or not.  The issue now is that there is so much technology on the sidelines and each element could possibly be a concern.

The most famous sideline collision was in a 1972 preseason game when Bubba Smith went out of bounds and ended up getting tangled in a down marker and chain.   Smith’s injury was described by one Baltimore Colt’s executive as “one of the worst knee injuries our team doctor had ever seen.”  The incident resulted in the NFL changing their down markers so they no longer involved metal spikes thrust into the ground.

Another incident just happened in October, 2022.  Denver Broncos linebacker Aaron Patrick tripped and fell on the mats at SoFi Stadium, tearing his ACL during an October 17th game at the stadium.  Patrick claims his foot rolled on one of the mats as he tried to avoid colliding with the NFL’s “green hat” TV liaison on the sidelines.   The mats were used to cover cables used by the league to operate their replay monitors.  Shortly after the injury the mats were removed.  It appears that the mats were designed to make the area safer and in fact resulted in the opposite effect.  Due to the injury, Patrick sued the NFL, ESPN, the Chargers and the Rams, alleging negligence in the placement of mats.

Patrick’s attorney, William M. Berman of Berman & Riedel, was quoted as saying, “The guys holding the cables/wires were still in too close proximity to the field, creating what we believe to still be a very dangerous condition,” Berman said. “It’s about player safety. It’s for the betterment of the game.”

My concern is that the sidelines are getting more and more crowded.  There are technology carts, first-aid tents, exercise bikes, heaters, and numerous other objects along the sidelines.  When the initial minimum 9-15 foot sideline buffer zone was developed (five yards per the National Federation State High Schools, 12 foot minimum per the NCAA (one sideline wings with more space behind team benches), and nine foot minimum on sides, 40 foot minimum by team areas for the NFL).  The question is whether this is enough room? 

This brings to mind the significant injury in 2015 to Reggie Bush.   In 2018 a jury in St. Louis ordered the then St. Louis Rams to pay the San Francisco 49’ers former running back Reggie Bush $12.5 million for a season ending severe knee injury.  A jury found the Rams 100 percent liable for Bush’s injury and ordered the team to pay $4.95 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages.  Bush was pushed out of bounds during a game at what was then the Edward Jones Dome. He slipped on a surface that the lawsuit dubbed the ”concrete ring of death,” about 35 feet (11 meters) behind the 49ers’ bench.

While the Bush case dealt with a cement surface, there are numerous other hazards on a typical sideline and teams/venues need to closely examine what is on the sidelines and how they are placed.  It might be critical to have all that equipment present for a game, not including all the broadcast equipment, thus care needs to be taken to try and provide more protection or warning so players going out of bounds will not be injured.  There is no way to guarantee a perfectly safe area, but venue/event managers should examine their space usage and identify possible solutions (such as padding, signage, demarcation devises, etc…) to provide warning and possible protection for those on the sidelines or pushed/tackled into the sidelines.

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