By John Miller, Ph.D. and Todd L. Seidler, Ph.D.
The 2020 high school football season has kicked-off in various areas of the country with a very different look and security concerns. However, aggressive (sometimes violent) behaviors have continued to occur among fans attending high school sports contests even with the spread of COVID-19. Examples of misbehaviors at high school games in the last two years include a person in Kansas, dying after being shot while attending a youth football game (Miller, 2020); an exchange of gunfire that occurred after a domestic dispute at a high school football game (Robinson, 2020); and two people were wounded after being shot while attending a high school football game in Ohio (Associated Press, 2020)
The examples mentioned above represent the tip of the iceberg of issues that compromise spectators’ safety while attending high school sports contests. When a fan attends a game on the high school’s property, a special relationship between the fan and the school is formed by either expressed or implied invitation (Dobbs, 2000). This relationship stipulates that the premises owner has a duty to the invitee to provide a reasonably safe environment (Grady, 2013). A reasonably safe facility or sporting event is foreseeably safe for participants, spectators, staff, and visitors (Seidler, 2005). In particular, according to the court in Betrand v. Alan Ford (1995), a landowner should “exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land” (p. 606). Further, premises liability mandates that the landowner has a duty to properly supervise athletic events (Hills v. Bridgeview Little League Association, 2000; McPherson v. Tennessee Football Incorporated, 2007). The court in Quinlivan v. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co, Inc. (1975) stated that the premises owner could not be considered “the absolute insurers of the safety of their invitees” (p. 261). Thus, when an incident of spectator rage occurs at a youth sporting event, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the landowner owed a duty of care to protect against attacks by third parties (van der Smissen, 2003).
Due to today’s litigious environment, lawsuits developing from injuries incurred at sports events are probable (Bezdicek, 2009). Youth sports organizations such as Pop Warner, Little League Association, and the National Alliance for Youth Sports have developed policies hoping to decrease violent behavior at youth sports events. However, the effects may have been less than stellar in curbing violence at these events. In many cases, the issues continue because the policies and sanctions meant to reduce the violence are not rigorous enough to discourage such actions. To reduce the chances that individuals may be exposed to harm at youth sports contests, the organization should develop and implement a comprehensive risk management policy. Despite some states passing legislation to deal with sports rage at high school athletic contests, there is a shortage of information regarding interscholastic athletic directors’ risk management practices (Miller & Curto, 2020). This study aimed to analyze the risk and security management procedures being employed in high school athletics in the state of New Mexico.
A 27-item questionnaire was created to elicit responses from New Mexico high school athletics directors. Of the 156 high schools in New Mexico, 66 (42%) athletic directors responded to the questionnaire. The results revealed that 68%of the responding New Mexico high school athletic departments possessed at least a basic written risk management plan. While 79% had a law or policy that prohibit spectators from bringing concealed weapons (e.g., guns or knives) into home football games, 64% revealed that game personnel such as ticket takers or ushers were not trained for security issues such as dealing with an active shooter situation. Additionally, 72% reported that game personnel were not trained to help break up altercations that may occur in the stadium during a game.
Only 21% agreed that local law enforcement or security personnel check vehicles entering the school parking lot before home football games. Additionally, 10% agreed the football stadium was searched by qualified security before each football game. Finally, 9% of the respondents indicated that spectators were searched before entering the football stadium. Thus, the results indicate that most high schools are employing little in the way of risk and security management proactive strategies such as searching spectators before they enter the facility nor searching the stadium before a game and that the schools do little to prepare game personnel for any violent misconduct by spectators.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many high school athletic seasons have been canceled or modified by allowing only a small percentage of spectators at each contest. Despite such decreases or alterations in conducting a sports contest, enough incidents have occurred to believe that violent misbehavior among high school sports spectators is not going away soon. For example, since 2013, there have been at least 108 incidents of gunfire around school sporting events in 36 states (Smith & Lu, 2020). While this study’s results emanate from one state, it identifies security and risk management gaps that may compromise some spectators’ safety at high school athletic competitions.
Risk Management Recommendations
One of the founding fathers of sport risk management, Dr. Herb Appenzeller, published his landmark text, Risk Management in Sport in 1998. When discussing the importance of risk management, he said “The law does expect, however, that sport administrators develop risk management and loss control programs to ensure a safe environment for all who participate in sport. Risk management has become a crucial part of the overall sport program. It is as important as budgeting, scheduling, insurance coverage, eligibility, equipment and facility management, contracts, and other duties”. (p. 9) One part of an overall high school athletics risk management program is to properly plan for foreseeable emergencies that may occur during events such as football and basketball games. The following are some suggested steps that athletic administrators should take to prepare for the possibility of violence or an active shooter at an event:
- Every school and athletic department should develop a basic risk management plan.
- School administrators should be aware of any state laws or school district policies regarding the carrying of weapons onto school property. If such laws or policies exist, they should be communicated to event managers and staff so that they can be enforced. If no such law or policy exists, consideration should be given to their development. Proper signage can be used to communicate it to the public.
- An evacuation plan for each facility should be developed and communicated to anyone with supervisory responsibility. Practicing the plan so that everyone knows how to react is prudent.
- Paid and volunteer staff should be trained on how to appropriately respond if violence, including an active shooting, should break out during an event.
Appenzeller, H. (1998). Risk Management in Sport. (1st ed.). Carolina Academic Press.
Associated Press. (2020). 2 people wounded by gunfire at Ohio high school football game. Retrieved from https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/09/18/two-wounded-high-school-football-shooting/
Betrand v. Alan Ford, Inc. 449 Mich. 606 (1995).
Berg, A. (2020). Football game stopped after dad refuses to wear mask. Athletic Business. Retrieved from https://www.athleticbusiness.com/spectator-safety/hs-football-game-stopped-when-dad-refuses-to-wear-mask.html
Bezdicek, P. (2009). Risk management practices in high school athletic department (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.
Dobbs, D. B. (2000). The law of torts. St. Paul, MN; West Group.
Grady, J. (2013). Premises liability. In D. Cotton & J. Wolohan (Eds.), Law for recreation and sport managers (5th ed.) (pp. 130-140). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.
Hills v. Bridgeview Little League Association, 745 N.E.2d 1166, 1177 (Ill. 2000).
McPherson v. Tennessee Football Inc., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39595 (M.D. Tenn. May 31, 2007).
Miller, J. & Curto, J. (2020, March). An analysis of risk and security management practices of high school athletic administrators in Mississippi. 2020 Sport and Recreation Law Association Conference, Louisville, KY.
Miller, R. J. (2020, October 23). Kansas youth football league canceled after fatal stadium shooting. New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/10/23/kansas-youth-football-league-canceled-after-fatal-shooting-at-stadium/
National Federation of State High School Associations. (2020). Sports seasons modifications update.
Quinlivan v. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co, Inc., 395 Mich. 244, 266, 235 N.W.2d 732 (Mich. 1975).
Robinson, C. (2020, October 9). Exchange of gunfire outside Gardenvale Civic Center followed domestic incident at football game. Retrieved from https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2020/10/exchange-of-gunfire-outside-gardendale-civic-center-followed-domestic-incident-at-high-school-football-game-no-one-injured.html
Seidler, T. L. (2005). Planning facilities for safety and risk management. In T. H. Sawyer (Ed.), Facilities planning for physical activity and sport (11th ed.) (pp. 129-136). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.
Smith, M. & Lu, D. (2020, January 6). An overlooked danger: School shooting after hours. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/06/us/after-school-shootings.html
van der Smissen, B. (2001) Elements of negligence. In D. Cotten, J. T. Wolohan, & T. J. Wilde (Eds.), Law for recreation and sport managers (pp. 37-45), Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.