On election day I had the pleasure of exercising my right to vote, which, I’m happy to say, was a record turnout in my district. Although the lines were long, I was entertained by the rhythmic sound of bouncing basketballs. My polling site is in a recreational facility with open basketball courts for the community members. I patronize this facility often and no matter the time of year, you will always find the courts full of potential NBA hopefuls.
Being an athlete requires a lot of dedication, discipline, and countless hours perfecting techniques. Many are oblivious to the risk of how just one injury can abruptly put an end to their hopes and dreams of reaching their full athletic potential. Not only can dreams be crushed; injuries can be fatal, and the liabilities for schools and personnel can be financially crippling.
When you know the risks of school sports injuries and the impact of not having a trained medical professional on-site, you can take action to create a safer environment for student-athletes.
The risks for athletes are serious.
According to the CDC, sports-related injuries are the leading cause of emergency room visits for 12 to 17 year-olds. While we often think football when it comes to school sports injuries, serious accidents can occur in any kind of sport; soccer, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse, and even cheerleading, not just football.
For example, basketball carries a risk of injury, whether played with friends on a local recreational court, with an organized league or a high school. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) study reveals the following high school basketball injury risk:
- 22% of all male basketball players sustained at least one time-loss injury each year.
- 42% of the injuries were to the ankle/foot
- 11% hip and thigh
- 9% knee
- Sprains were the most common type of injury (43%).
- General trauma was the second most common type of injury (22%).
The Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus surveyed 100 high schools on a weekly basis and determined that there are annually some 1.4 million sports injuries at the high school level. “Half of all those injuries are sprains and strains,” says Ellen Yard, a research associate at the center. “But others are more severe. We estimate at least 6 percent of all injuries result in surgery, and about 15 percent of injuries cause the athlete to miss at least three weeks of play.”
Many schools don’t have medical professionals on-site.
With all the documented injury risk, I can’t help but wonder about who is caring for the athlete after getting hurt - no matter how minor or severe. Studies have shown that 59% of most injuries occurred during the second half of the game, which identifies fatigue as a predisposing factor. I have attended many basketball games in my day and the tension, especially in the second half, is high. Coaches are engaged with the players and preoccupied with the game. Fans are going crazy (I can do an entire article on that issue alone!). Referees and Athletic directors are doing their thing and may or may not know how to address an injury.
Although we know the inherent risk of injuries, high schools rarely have someone in place to provide professional care in the event of a problem. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina reported that between 1982 and 2007 there were more than one hundred fatal, disabling or serious injuries, with a rise in recent years attributed to the increasingly gymnastic character of cheerleading. With all the supporting evidence for the need for medical support during sporting events, I still don’t see proper coverage.
Schools are ultimately liable.
We have an abundance of data to support the need for high school athletic programs to have medical support, yet the problem continues to exist. I found that the number one reason for not hiring medical support is due to financial restraints. As a teacher myself, I am very sensitive to the reasons why schools do not have a full-time sports trainer. Funding is a real issue, but when you think about the risk for legal implications, the benefit far exceeds the risk of being sued.
The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that since the mid-1990s, hundreds of civil suits per year have been filed by injured student-athletes against schools, administrators and athletics personnel, most asserting a negligent failure to exercise reasonable care to safeguard the health and well-being of the athlete.
Due to the influx of civil suits, the understanding of the legal responsibilities imposed on schools supports the need for a proactive plan to address the safety of the student-athletes. The article, Top Ten Sports Law Issues Impacting School Athletics Programs states, “Schools must understand the duties of planning, supervision, technique instruction, warnings, safe playing environment, safe equipment, matching and equating athletes, evaluation of injuries, return-to-action protocols, immediate medical response, emergency medical response planning, safe transportation, and other categories of responsibilities intended to protect athletes from injury.”
Many of the lawsuits have been settled with the terms of the settlements remaining confidential; however, published settlements are known to include:
- $4.4 million settlement arising from allegations a coach ignored evidence that a 17-year-old football player was experiencing headaches and allowed the player to return to play (March 2012, California, Mission Hills High School).
- $1 million verdicts after a jury found the school district at fault because the school nurse was negligent in not notifying coaches and the student’s guardian of a possible concussion (May 2015, Des Moines, Iowa).
- $2 million settlement in a case involving a 16-year-old high school football player who sustained a head injury during practice while not wearing a helmet. The student allegedly received only a cursory evaluation by a coach and athletic trainer, and he was reputedly left alone in a training room for a half-hour before being allowed to drive himself home (October 2015, Florida, Hillsborough County School Board).
- A pending $5 million federal lawsuit filed in Wisconsin in February 2015 for the death of a former football player who began playing at age 11 in the national Pop Warner program and killed himself at age 25. The complaint alleges that the Pop Warner organization “knew or should have known that tackle football was dangerous for children and exposed children to head injuries, including dementia pugilistica, a variant of C.T.E.”
- $300,000 settlement in a case involving a traumatic brain injury suffered by a high school football player who allegedly was returned to action prematurely after suffering a concussion during a practice in 2009 (July 2014, Montana, Three Forks School District).
Schools must be proactive.
Schools must be proactive and develop a plan of action to reduce their risk of liability. You can get started by establishing an Emergency Action Plan, which will ensure that appropriate care is provided promptly and decrease the chance of legal action. If you don’t have an athletic trainer, consider contracting a functioning First Aid Support Team, trained medical professionals that handle medical emergencies at sporting events. The average cost of securing medical support for a basketball season (girls and boys) is less than the legal and possible settlement fees you could incur if you don’t have the appropriate care available for your teams. Being proactive and securing qualified medical support confirms your commitment to your athletes’ safety.