Managing the Risks of School Sports

In an age of litigation, school districts need to ensure safety plays a leading role by MELISSA R. MAC

School officials who are spending more time this fall on their schools’ playing fields aren’t doing so as a bonding exercise with athletes and coaches. Rather, they are evaluating, assessing and implementing measures to protect their students and their districts from the serious and growing concerns involving risk management in interscholastic athletics.


In an increasingly litigious society, administrators are faced with the challenging task of keeping their student athletes safe, their coaches properly trained, their facilities well maintained and the school districts well protected in an area that continues to be ripe for lawsuits. When even a student’s backpack can pose a security hazard, the condition of the playing field, the soundness of the equipment and the safety of the bus transportation to and from competition all represent challenges in the risk area.

The threat of million-dollar lawsuits has propelled many school districts into developing meticulous risk management programs that must balance the costs of insurance, staffing, equipment and, most importantly, what would transpire should an accident occur.

Gil Fried, a professor at University of Houston who tracks liability in sports and recreation, says nine settlements or jury verdicts in school sports cases exceeded $1 million between 1989 and 1996. The Seattle Public Schools faced a $6.4 million lawsuit as a result of a serious football injury, documented in the Council of School Attorneys’ 1997 publication, The Legal Handbook on School Athletics.

Every fall, school leaders are reminded of the serious nature of athletic risks. Two high school football players in Kansas and three others in North Carolina, California and the District of Columbia collapsed and died during the opening weeks of preseason drills in August and early September of this year. Nationally, 13 scholastic football players died last year from direct or indirect injuries related to the game, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

About 39 percent of all varsity football players were injured during the 1995 season, the most recent data available from the National Athletic Trainers Association. Nearly a fourth of all high school soccer players had an injury that required they sit out at least one game.

A Proactive Stance
Through education, prevention and old-fashioned common sense, administrators who have responsibility for their school district’s risk management believe interscholastic sports do not have to suffer as a result of more expensive insurance premiums and heavy-handed restrictions.

"The biggest concern I think, is to make sure the district is proactive, to keep the element of play safe," says Tom Rende, assistant superintendent of the Lenape, N.J., Regional High School District, which operates three high schools, each with 1,500 or more students. "You constantly have to have a program in place where you perform inspections."

Rende says his athletic staff attends risk management workshops and seminars to help them reduce the potential for injury. "On one end you have to look at the element of play and secondly you have to examine the equipment you're using and you have to look at the injuries. The other area is after they get hurt. The reaction time and what [plans] the school has in place to deal with that injury."

Fueled by American society’s affinity for litigation, injuries incurred in practice or game competition result in risk management lawsuits principally aimed at the school district, not the coach, trainer or teacher.

Legal Claims
John Olson, coordinator of school security operations of the Madison, Wis., School District, says it is the responsibility of administrators at the site and district levels to scrutinize their risk management program from top to bottom to avoid problems. Even with precautions, he says, parents do not always react rationally when their son or daughter is injured while participating in school athletics.

"It is very clear that parents are not accepting the fact that children will be hurt in schools or school competitions even though the statistics tell us there is a high incidence of school injuries," Olson says.

The issue often boils down to whether a loss or injury was foreseeable or preventable.

Martin Semple, an education attorney in Denver who serves on the board of directors of the Council of School Attorneys, says school leaders need to be versed in risk management because litigation is becoming so predictable. "There's just a whole series of new cases and actions that people seem to come up with all the time," he says. "Anything that goes wrong you can expect the school district to get sued."

He and others report a general increase in cases involving student issues--problems related to student-teacher or student-coach relationships, especially of a sexual nature.

"One of the biggest problems we have is harassment suits," says one central-office administrator who asked not to be identified. "In some cases, some judges are awarding ridiculous awards to people."

Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney in Santa Barbara, Calif., who often represents school districts in sexual harassment cases, can’t say for sure if the frequency of inappropriate relationships between coaches and athletes has changed although the reporting of such cases has increased markedly.

While the vast majority of coaches behave ethically, she says if one were to break out the demographics and job characteristics of school employees accused of sexual harassment or abuse, the largest number would involve men who coach sports or teach physical education. These coaches, McGrath says, "haven’t realized they’re no longer high school jocks. Their mentality hasn’t shifted so [they perceive] high school girls are fair game."

School leaders have "a lot of power" to prevent such activity, but often seem unwilling to do so, contends McGrath, who has handled several lawsuits over the years in which principals ignored substantive rumors about sexual relationships. Administrators who do take forceful action risk being branded as being "in the alleged victim’s camp," she adds.

Insurance Coverage
To protect students and faculty in all aspects of athletics, Semple suggests school leaders focus on education and staff training. By simply training coaches to be more sensitive to the potential landmines, one can reduce the risk of injury or litigation threat, he says. One way is to encourage staff to immediately report an incident.

"Not training people or alerting people to what the concern might be could be a potential for liability," Semple says.

He advises school officials to pay close attention to the type of coverage they have for interscholastic athletics. In California, 75 percent of the school districts purchase health and injury insurance from the same firm, which also provides various levels of coverage to individual athletes. In football, premiums ranged from $71 to $175 last year.

School districts that are not self-insured should be extremely careful to review their coverage to understand what may be excluded, such as incidents that occur off school property or negligent acts by a teacher.

"These things can be very troublesome," Semple said. "Make sure you are getting the type of coverage you want. Anybody that suffers an injury believes they are entitled to some kind of relief."

The Lenape Regional High School District is a part of a statewide insurance pool, which saves significant dollars in premiums, Rende says.

He oversees risk management training for his 6,200-student district, which also keeps costs down. The district has used a safety firm to evaluate school property, including playing facilities and sports equipment.

Better Screening
As risk control director for Coregis, an insurance company in Chicago, Robert Krall has not seen significant increases in the number of cases in recent years, but says as the exposure factors increase, a rise in claims may follow. The number of injuries relates directly to the size of the student population, the quality of coaching and how quickly medical treatment is provided, he says. Plus, there are always new fears.

"The kids are starting younger, which is an exposure," Krall says. "Some of the sports, such as hockey and football, the kids are provided with better equipment but they then participate more forcefully and that can lead to injuries."

He recommends school officials make careful choices when they hire coaches and require signed agreements from parents or an expanded physical examination by the athlete's doctor that constitute more than the typical release form.

A recent study of athletic screening programs, published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, identified glaring inadequacies in the ways schools screen athletes. Few collect meaningful information about an athlete’s family medical history or past sports injuries, and most states don’t require the schools to collect information about symptoms indicating cardiac abnormalities, a leading cause of death among young athletes.

The researchers believe such information would help identify students who face potential medical risks as athletes and allow coaches and parents to alter their physical activities before a tragedy occurs.

Risk managers say good record keeping is a must and warranty information should be maintained for all protective equipment use in competition so that a reliable paper trail exists for future reference.

Athletic Trainers
One way some school athletic programs are reducing the number of sports-related injuries and lowering risks is through the use of an athletic trainer. Trainers are able to analyze injuries immediately and make adjustments to eliminate future injuries.

"We are lucky enough in our district to have trainers in each school and we make sure at the end of each year they write up injuries and we look at how we can eliminate these injuries," Rende says of the Lenape, N.J., athletic program.

"We've had them for at least eight years. It's incredible the difference that they make. They're able to react quickly to an injury. The quicker you can get to an injury and treat it the better."

Olson, of the Madison, Wis., district, says athletic trainers are beneficial on several levels. "They have the capacity to refer (students) to appropriate medical specialists when care beyond the basic level is needed. … There's an immediacy of preventative care and an awareness of emergency care."

Some school districts have used trainers for years. Cherry Creek High School in Colorado has had the same professional trainer since 1961 to work with athletes on its 20 teams. And others, like Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., are supplementing their certified trainer with vocational students who are learning the trade in a new sports medicine and health careers program.

Student trainers, under the professional’s supervision, are assigned to soothe sore shoulders and apply ice packs and electrical stimulation tools to sore limbs. Eventually, as part of their internship, the student trainers learn to tape swollen ankles.

Nationwide, though, only 35 percent of the nation’s high schools employ certified trainers for their interscholastic sports program, according to a 1993 survey by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Jon Almquist, a spokesman for NATA, describes that number as too small to ensure adequate care for student athletes.

The cost of a certified trainer, he says, is more than offset when risk management is viewed from a long-term perspective.

Educating Coaches
"I just think there should be requirements for coaches. When I send my kid out for a football or baseball team I want to know that coach knows all the rules and knows everything is as safe as it can be," Lincoln says. "When an athlete shows signs of dehydration, can you recognize that?"

Serious conditions are avoidable with common sense. "Kids die (yet) coaches think they want to get out of practice. You would not believe how often that happens," she says.

While no one disputes the importance of having qualified and well-trained coaches, school leaders are confronting a growing need to go outside the school system to find coaches for interscholastic teams. They don’t question these individuals’ knowledge of the sport, only how well they’ve been prepared to work with school-age youngsters and attend to their physical and emotional needs.

Proper training for non-educators involved in athletics is taking on new importance, according to Boyd Sands, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, whose organization plans to sponsor its first clinic for coaches who are not teachers in January.

His organization estimates that at least 40 percent of those who coach high school sports are not professional educators and others may work in neighboring schools or districts. In some districts, the number is much higher. Last year, the Rumson-Fair Haven, N.J., Regional Township Schools reported only four of its varsity coaches taught at the high school.

"We see that there are individuals coaching who know what we call the X's and O's but not enough about the liability issues," says Sands, who was a superintendent for more than 20 years in the Southern Gloucester County, N.J., Regional High School District. "The remedy we see for school administrators is for them to get their coaches more involved in educational programs."

Sands says he’s pleased by the trend of including certified trainers in scholastic athletic programs, noting that coaches and trainers bring different abilities to help athletes and reduce risk.

"This is an area where coaches don't have the same education," he says. "They should not be taping youngsters before a game unless they have been trained to do that."

When coaches are not part of the school staff, communication is substantially reduced. Schools may have trouble getting the necessary paperwork from a coach who has a full-time job elsewhere, say Don Bales, athletic director at Lowell High School in Indiana.

Bales also is president of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, which he says has ever-increasing worries about the trend of non-educators in coaching positions. "Many of these problems go directly to the issue of risk management," he says.

Tracking Successes
As someone who works with schools nationwide, Krall says administrators can learn a lot from their colleagues when designing a risk management program. "Develop the best practices by obtaining guidelines, do a 'touch base' with other school districts who already have a program in place and see what they are doing to minimize their exposure," he says.

He points to the Orange County Public Schools in Orlando as a district where the number of injuries is down and the numbers on the scoreboard are up. Orange County was the first district in the state to mandate coaching education. Since 1988, all coaches have had to take classes dealing with sports injuries.

Cooper Means, an athletic specialist with the school district until his retirement last year, studied whether the required classes for coaches and the addition of certified trainers had any effect on reducing athletic injuries. He kept meticulous injury records for five years.

He found the number of claims steadily dropped from 271 in 1992-93 to 124 in 1996-97, even though the number of athletes grew to almost 14,000 by 1996. The decrease in injuries was 68 percent by the time Means stopped counting and started to rest assured the program he had started was truly working.

John Hanson, the school district’s director of risk management, believes the decline in injuries relates directly to the response of athletic personnel. "We would have regular meetings with coaches and athletic directors and would let them know that injuries were out there and how to handle that," he says. "And we also gave instruction, if you will, on adequately dealing with injuries. The days of walking off an injury are over. We make sure injuries aren't exacerbated by playing on an injury."

Excessive Worries
In Rutland, Vt., Superintendent David Wolk says while risk management in athletics is an issue on his radar screen, he has not had any reason to consider it a major concern. Liability fears, he believes, should not outweigh the benefits of a healthy interscholastic sports program.

"I worry about a lot of things in the school district, but when it comes to the organization of the athletic program, if you have good people running those programs then you don't worry about it," Wolk says. "Some administrators or school board members worry too much about liability. I know most people say you can't worry enough about being protected, but I think that if you allow your fears regarding liability coverage to govern your day-to-day thinking, then you wouldn't open up your facilities and you wouldn't be doing a good job."

Rutland's athletics facilities, which are shared with the local recreational department, are open year round, day and night.

Wolk's comfort level stems in part from a support staff that he says has built a safe, reliable, effective risk management program. "I don't believe in prohibiting opportunities for kids because of one's fear of lawsuits," he says. "The smarter approach is to reduce the risks involved in participation and at the same time open up your facilities day and night year round to both students and community members."

Melissa Mac served as an editorial intern with The School Administrator.