Sports field managers across all levels of play make safety their top consideration. Playability is a strong second, with aesthetics, while very important, ranked third on the list. However, this must be supported by well-documented action.

Potential liability

Be aware of potential liability issues. Ignorance is not an excuse that can be successfully defended in court. As sports law and sport management authority Dr. Herb Appenzeller says, “Even when an issue has not been directly addressed by facility personnel, if that area of potential liability is widely publicized, those with direct involvement in a similar situation may be held liable.”

One such issue, in the news again this past January after yet another death, relates to soccer goals. It points to the area of potential liability involving maintenance issues and field conditions, focusing on the need for consistent inspection with a system to identify potential problems, rectify them and document all steps of that process. Sport law experts note this encompasses the entire playing surface; the equipment required for the specific sport including goals, goalposts and backstops; transition and out-of-bounds areas; fencing; lighting; player areas, such as dugouts and locker rooms; bleachers and other public viewing areas; concession and restroom facilities; and walkways and parking lots.

Depending on the division of responsibilities within the various entities, the sports field manager will oversee designated areas at specific sites. However, the system for inspection, problem identification and rectification and documentation for all areas should be coordinated so that all data is retained and available for periodic review.

Specific requirements for all aspects involved should be clearly stated. For example, equipment required for specific sports must be “adequate and appropriate” for the sport, maintained in “adequate and appropriate” condition, and the system of installation or anchoring must be “adequate and appropriate” for the situation.

The supplier has welded tabs on the front edge of the runner that sits on the ground for all three legs of these player/coach benches. A 2-foot long, half-inch section of rebar runs through the tab into the ground, with a washer welded on top of the rebar so it’s secure.

Another area of potential liability focuses on “adequate and appropriate” field and facility design, construction or installation and any subsequent renovations. Yet another issue relates to uses of the field beyond those for which it was originally designed. That could include lacrosse or field hockey play on a football/soccer field, or concerts and community or nonprofit association fundraising activities. Player, coach, staff, volunteer and spectator involvement with any or all components of a facility that doesn’t fall within the “adequate and appropriate” definition, could also lead to litigation.

Sports field managers have access to the same resources reporting on injury, liability and litigation in sports that are used by facility and athletic department administrators, insurance company risk management specialists and attorneys, both those representing sports facilities and those representing the injured parties. Dr. Appenzeller provides such a resource through his website and the newsletter posted there. Another resource, the Sports Litigation Alert from Hackney Publications, features a bimonthly newsletter focusing on sports law. Along with archive case summaries, it features guest articles written by sports law professionals.

This soccer goal is secured with an auger and cable-type system. It will allow for give if a player comes in contact with the goal.

In a May 2010 article for that publication, Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., professor and graduate chair of the department of sport management and media at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, N.Y., addressed another potential liability issue pertinent to sports field managers of collegiate facilities, the action of overexuberant fans of the winning team rushing the football field to dismantle the goalpost. She wrote, “While field or court rushing is often showcased in the marketing of college sport as a symbol of celebration, numerous court cases have raised issues pertaining to institutional liability in the aftermath of students sustaining injuries when these celebrations happen.” After citing specific incidents, she noted, “Despite these, and other well-publicized cases, school authorities have been slow to implement policies to ensure the safety of spectators and reduce institutional liability.”

There are multiple resources addressing crowd management issues that facilities can tap into. For example, the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), formerly the International Association of Assembly Managers, lists one of its major services as life safety and security training. Harold Hansen, IAVM’s director of life safety and security, coordinates that department’s programs and activities and serves as the staff liaison for the IAVM’s International Crowd Management Conference. Hansen notes field-related issues are part of the focus of this program.

Taking the proactive approach, sports field managers at collegiate facilities that have adopted a policy addressing the goalpost issue need to review that policy with their personnel and clearly define the actions they are authorized and/or required to perform in such a situation. If no policy has yet been formulated, the sports field manager in this or any other field-related potential liability situation should suggest that steps be taken to develop a policy and, if appropriate to the administrative structure of the facility, offer to provide input for that policy.

Review, assess and revise

Mark Vessell Sr. is executive director of the St. Louis Youth Soccer Association based in Fenton, Mo. He says, “We’re covered for liability issues under the Missouri Youth Soccer Association, and the state carries insurance on the tournaments we run. We don’t use a checklist as such, but have well-established maintenance practices and are continually monitoring conditions on and off the field. We thoroughly inspect all of the hardware at the beginning of the spring and fall soccer seasons, making sure everything is properly in place and all connections are tight. Our soccer goals are secured with screw-in anchors and cable.”

Vessell, like others working with youth sports programs, suggests the commonsense approach, anticipating what youngsters might do in a given situation and taking proactive steps to avoid potential problems. Vessel says, “If we’re doing any maintenance that disrupts a surface or discover a field problem, even something such as a small hole, we rope off the area to prevent access until our work is completed or the problem situation rectified.”

Vessell notes they’re always analyzing procedures and products, sometimes finding little changes that can make a big difference. He says, “We purchase our player and coach benches from UltraPlay, Inc., based in Red Bud, Ill. When we placed the order, we worked with them to have an addition made to the standard bench. We had them weld a tab on the front edge of the runner that sits on the ground. We run a piece of half-inch rebar through the tab into the ground, welding a washer on top of the rebar so it’s secure and there are no rough edges. That keeps the bench from tipping over, even when the players sit on the back of the bench instead of the seat. An added advantage is the anchoring stops people from moving the benches to different locations within the complex.”

The goal is to become a key part of the facility’s overall liability protection initiatives so that all staff members are aware of potential issues and take a proactive role in safety-related policies, including adequate and appropriate steps to prevent incidents from occurring. Dr. Appenzeller recommends formation of a safety committee involving the sports field manager, facility manager, the top administrator for athletics and a certified athletic trainer or medical doctor. He says, “This team should continue to assess both the facilities and the programs in place, making revisions as needed to ensure the adequate and appropriate standards are maintained.”

Consistency counts

Mike Trigg, superintendent of parks for the Waukegan Park District, has been using checklists successfully for years and agrees that consistency counts. He says, “Our current ball diamond prepping and safety checklist has gone through a few changes over the years. It was originally developed as an assignment checklist for our staff, but we soon realized the added benefits of tracking our field management program and keeping the records of what had been done. When we instituted the Waukegan Park District comprehensive risk management program, the safety components were incorporated into the checklist format. We keep a paper file, extending back about eight to 10 years, providing documentation of our field maintenance program, field use preparation and safety inspections.”

Trigg notes the district has needed to utilize those records during the litigation process a few times over the years. He says, “In each instance, we were able to show through that documentation that our field care program was consistent, adequate and appropriate. We use similar checklists for our playground and facility maintenance, providing a coordinated program that addresses all the issues of liability.”

The use of specific forms is sometimes mandated by a sports association in conjunction with their insurance program. That’s the case with the American Softball Association (ASA)/USA Baseball. Their reasoning for this is explained on their website, and a copy of the ASA/USA Softball Field Safety Checklist can be viewed there.

Whichever format you develop, Appenzeller notes the same basic format should be applied to daily, weekly and seasonal inspections, to further document consistency. With ever-tightening budgets and increased field use, the degree of scrutiny will likely become even more intense. Consistent inspection and documentation can be a proactive step demonstrating that resources have been allocated effectively despite budget cuts, thus supporting the definition of “adequate and appropriate” should litigation occur.