Risk Management for Athlete Safety and To Protect Facilities from Spectator Lawsuits

Jun 15, 2012

By Vernon E. Inge, Jr.
Sports is all about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but for owners and operators of athletic facilities who neglect to develop a solid risk management plan, victory can result in an agony all its own. The quintessential illustration of this challenge occurred almost 20 years ago, but the issues on which it cast a light remain highly relevant, and several similar situations have occurred in recent years.
A case that made risk management for athletic facilities a high-profile topic was the infamous “Camp Randall Crush,” as it’s come to be known. After a big upset home victory by the University of Wisconsin football team over the Michigan Wolverines on October 30, 1993, spectators began rushing the field as the final gun sounded. They were blocked by guardrails, but fans in the seats above and behind them could not see this and, aided by gravity, continued to press forward. Those in front were first crushed against the rails and a four-foot fence surrounding the field, then trampled as the crowd swarmed onto the field after security officers opened several latched metal gates.
All told, 73 spectators were injured, six critically (although there were no fatalities), and many of the remaining 75,000 fans suffered from psychological aftereffects for which they required counseling. The incident resulted in 51 notices of claim and 15 actual lawsuits. Although all actions were eventually dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity, the university suffered a public relations black eye and incurred legal costs defending itself against the suits.
More recently, thousands of fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts last December when the Oklahoma State University Cowboys beat the University of Oklahoma Sooners, snapping an eight-game losing streak in that rivalry. More than a dozen people were injured, two critically, with one spectator reportedly falling 15 feet onto a concrete apron.
Just a month later, Roy Williams, coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team, raised some eyebrows when he pulled his starters off the court and herded them to the locker room with 14 seconds left to play in a game which home team Florida State was winning handily. He later said he did it for the safety of his team, knowing the Florida State fans would storm the court (which they did), but the five seldom-used reserve players who replaced the starters were left to fend for themselves.
In formulating a risk management plan to deal with potential incidents such as those described above, athletic facility owners and operators must consider a number of factors, primarily the safety of spectators, athletes, officials, media representatives and facility staff and protecting them from both accidental and intentional violence. Swarming fans can also ruin playing surfaces and damage or destroy expensive equipment.
There are two basic approaches to reducing potential liability from such incidents. The first is to take steps and institute policies to prevent spectators from entering the playing area at all. The second is to design facilities and equipment in a way that minimizes the likelihood of injury should such an incident occur. In practical terms, it often makes sense for facility designers and operators to combine elements of both approaches.
Certainly, stadiums and facilities can be designed in ways that make it harder for spectators to get on the field or court; if attendees have an expectation that they won’t be able to gain access, they are less likely to rush the field. Camp Randall Stadium did have a gate system for crowd control, but its use was intermittent, so spectators had the expectation that they could swarm the field. If a containment system is properly designed and highly visible, and its existence and use is clearly communicated to spectators, it can reduce the tendency for fans to rush the field during or after events.
University of Wisconsin officials took a number of steps following the Camp Randall Crush. They added space and implemented reserve seating in the student section, bolstered staff to help keep aisles clear, added breakaway gates, raised the height of the fence in front of the student section to six feet, and instituted requirements for ticket holders to enter at designated gates. They also launched a media campaign urging fans to remain in the stands, removed the bottom three rows of seating, enacted rules barring spectators from stopping or standing in front of the student section, added more security officers for crowd control, and added more safety equipment, including a command center in the press box, new video equipment and more radios for emergency personnel.
Additional steps were taken when Camp Randall Stadium underwent a $113 million renovation a year after the incident. The makeover reduced density for band seating and for seating in the front of the student section; it added cross aisles in the student section that prevent fans in the top rows from walking all the way down to the field level, which forestalls the human tidal wave effect that precipitated the Camp Randall Crush; it removed a field-level walkway but added more portals and cross aisles to facilitate movement through the spectator sections; and it added a new public address system for emergency broadcasts.
The latest trend in risk management for athletic facilities seems to be to institute measures to keep fans off the playing field or court, but to assume that breaches will occur and therefore to design equipment to be as safe as possible in those conditions (collapsible goalposts, for example). Most venues continue to warn spectators that they should not come on the field or court because it is dangerous, but they try to make sure chances of injury are minimized if and when those warnings are ignored.
Aspects of any risk management plan will be unique for individual facilities and the types of events for which they are used. Owners and operators should start by looking at the design to see if there are safe ways to make it less inviting for spectators to come onto the field or court. Any such measures should be highly visible, and they should be pointed out to attendees on tickets and collateral materials and via public address announcements during events.
For managers who are planning to construct a new facility, the design of the facility must consider full access to playing areas. That is one reason why it is useful to engage architects who have experience in designing facilities safe for fans, officials, and participants. Regardless of the architect, though, design of the facility must carefully consider these safety issues.
Facility managers must also consider any potential dangers which efforts to make playing areas less accessible might create. For example, raised basketball courts may be less inviting to fan intrusion, but if spectators do climb up on the playing floor there is the possibility they could be hurt from jumping or falling off (not to mention the risk of injury to a player who may fall off trying to save a ball from going out of bounds or the like). A risk assessment exercise should be conducted for any physical barriers created to discourage spectator incursion into the playing area: How likely is it to succeed? What dangers does it present if it fails? What additional dangers exist if spectators gain entry to the area the barrier was intended to protect? It’s always a good idea to make sure the equipment beyond the barrier is as safe as it can be in case the barrier fails.
Finally, it is important to include the safety of athletes and officials in risk management assessments. They need to be protected to the greatest extent possible from the potential of violence inflicted by spectators and opposing players as well as from other more generalized threats, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. This point was starkly illustrated during the 1989 World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants when an earthquake just before the start of Game 3 led to a 10-day disruption in play. Players in the dugouts ran out onto the field because they had no easily accessible way to exit Candlestick Park without passing underneath the concrete stands, which appeared to be in danger of collapsing. Facilities should be designed to provide quick and easy escape for athletes and officials, whether from fan violence or a more generalized type of threat.
The major takeaway here is that owners and operators of sports facilities should formulate and implement policies for safety and crowd control that reduce the likelihood of injuries to spectators, athletes and anyone else using the facility. While public universities and colleges might have recourse to sovereign immunity in certain states, that defense is not available to private institutions. Injury cases resulting from incidents like the Camp Randall Crush can create a bad public image and can be costly to litigate, especially when there are multiple plaintiffs, and their outcome is never guaranteed. This is a case where an ounce of prevention really can be worth a pound of cure.
Attorney Vernon E. Inge, Jr. is a Richmond, Va.-based shareholder in LeClairRyan, where he leads the national law firm’s Sports Industry team. His sports law practice focuses on the representation of professional athletes and sports agents in litigation, bankruptcies, and legal issues surrounding investments. He also handles issues relating to the Major League Baseball and National Football League players’ associations, and represents entities that create, operate and/or promote events and tournaments. Contact: vernon.inge@leclairyan.com.


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