On a cold, dark, early morning in March, the grounds crew day shift assembles in the warm team room to prepare for the day. These sports field managers are here to inspect the playing fields and mitigate safety hazards before the athletes, who each paid $100 to play today, hit the fields.

The night shift is just coming off the field, having worked all night preparing the playing surface. They bring their equipment and tools into the shop, clean them and put them away for tomorrow night. You see, at this venue, every day is game day.

Back in the warm team room, the boss lays out the issues for today’s safety inspection. As always, he starts with the weather forecast. Next up, any areas of the playing surface that need attention are detailed. There are a few housekeeping notes, and then his crew heads to the fields, but not before grabbing the explosives.

In October 2010, Sports Field Management published an excellent article: “Sports Facility Liability: Prevent injury, protect yourself.” Every sport facility operator, as well as sports leagues and teams will need to prepare for increased facility and field safety awareness that will come in the next several years.

More and more insurance policies are requiring a well-documented playing field that meets minimum safety guidelines. Finally, the sports field manager will have the organizational traction needed to affect the changes we have long advocated for, but have eluded most facilities save the professional and collegiate ranks. Along with this new opportunity comes potential peril. Excessive and even runaway litigation can damage any industry, forcing facility owners and recreational sports leagues to fold for ever-increasing liability insurance premiums.

What if we could somehow define the inherent hazards in playing sports for the athletes, and cap liability for the facility owners/rec leagues as long as they met certain reasonable safety and informational guidelines generally accepted by the industry in terms of field design, maintenance and preparation?

Back at our venue, the grounds crew has groomed the playing surface, inspected it for hazards, updated any signage required, and we are open for play at 8 a.m. The owner of the facility sits quietly in her office, knowing that her liability exposure is limited by law to a manageable level, as long as the facility keeps up its part of the deal.

The grounds crew doesn’t lack for resources, and there are plenty of jobs. Perhaps the coolest job on the grounds crew is avalanche patrol. You get to light off and throw real explosives, and maybe even get to shoot a howitzer. You see, this is almost any ski area in the U.S. we are talking about.

In almost every state that has any ski industry (there are more than you may think), state legislators have recognized the perils of the ski industry when it comes to injured skier lawsuits. In response, they have crafted similar acts in different states, but all aimed at defining the responsibilities and liabilities of both the skier and the ski area operator. Here in Colorado, where skiing is big business, the state passed the Ski Safety Act of 1979. In the declaration of this piece of legislation it reads, in part:

“The General Assembly hereby finds and declares that it is in the interest of the state of Colorado to establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for the skiers using them. Realizing the dangers that inhere in the sport of skiing, regardless of any and all reasonable safety measures which can be employed, the purpose of this article is to … further define the legal responsibilities of ski area operators and their agents and employees; to define the responsibilities of skiers using such ski areas; and to define the rights and liabilities existing between the skier and the ski area operator and between skiers.”

Why not look at a similar model for use in recreational athletics? I like the idea of handling it at the state level. That way, the “Sports Safety Act” can address certain situations perhaps more suited to each state and its sporting environment. Recreational youth and adult sports are not only big business, they are a part of the modern American experience, literally benefiting millions. It’s in all our interests to recognize this and take reasonable steps that ensure these great experiences we have on our treasured athletic fields can be passed to future generations.

Such legislation would recognize the great economic and societal health impact of these sports and sports facilities by providing a reasonable and manageable approach for facility owners/operators and the recreational leagues that use these facilities. There would be reasonable maintenance and preparation guidelines that would greatly improve the levels of management on many playing fields. Adequate resources will become less expensive than running things on the cheap. In the ski industry, these acts have provided for tremendous investments by the owners and operators who see a safer investment environment for their capital.

Who funds all this? The athletes do, just like the skiers do with the $100 dollar lift ticket. We charge too little for recreational athletic facility use, and field neglect is too often the result. I’m not advocating $100 to use a field, but we could easily do better than the current nearly free price point in use at many recreational fields today. More expensive lift tickets didn’t hurt the ski industry in Colorado, far from it. More and more skiers (recreational athletes) are skiing on better surface conditions, maintained by professionals.

Why does almost every athletic field grant program only fund new fields or capital repairs/improvements? There is nothing available for maintenance or resurfacing. I’m sure it has to do with the current state of many of our athletic field maintenance/use issues. A sports safety act, similar to the skier safety act, could do for our parks and rec fields what we have seen at the ski areas. When risks are well known and manageable, investment follows and quality improves.