Violence incidents becoming increasingly common
Sports violence is on the rise and the public is being bombarded with accounts of violence between sports officials and spectators, coaches and spectators, and spectator on spectator. Sports officials are resigning in record numbers over actual or feared verbal and physical assaults. There are increasing accounts of gun violence in the stands and parking areas. This is not just at high school games, but is happening at youth sports events. A number of my sports insurance clients have approached me for advice this past year on how to possibly prevent these incidents from happening. Although this type of violence has been present for some time, the increasing frequency and severity makes this an emerging risk in the amateur sports world which demands a response from risk management.
Violence in the media
Staff member is aggressor
Coach vs coach
Coach vs player
Coach vs spectator
Coach vs sports official
Sports official vs coach
Sports official vs spectator
Spectator is aggressor
Spectator vs coach
Spectator vs sports official
Spectator vs spectator
Spectator vs player
Athlete is the aggressor
Athlete vs coach
Athlete vs sports official
Athlete vs spectator
Outside party other than spectator is aggressor
Outside party vs spectator
Drive by shootings
Gang related crimes
How can amateur sports organizations be sued for failure to prevent violence?
Negligent hiring, supervision, retention, etc. of staff members – Sports organizations should not hire or retain any staff member with a known propensity for violence. Information about past violence can be obtained by running a criminal background check. Any prospective staff member should be disqualified if their criminal background triggers a disqualification based on pre determined DQ criteria used by the league or suggested by the background check vendor. Any existing staff member who is charged with a crime that falls under the pre determined DQ criteria should be relieved of their duties pending the outcome of the investigation. Any staff member who exhibits violent behavior but is not charged should be scrutinized by the board of the sports organization with the appropriate sanction including termination or suspension. The sports organization owes a duty of care to not employ staff members with a history of violence. Such staff members are a liability risk should they be involved in a future incident.
Failure to protect and control spectators – Generally, facility owners and field users have a legal duty to control the conduct of spectators on their premises when they have the opportunity to control such parties and are reasonably aware of the need for such control. Second, facility owners and field users only have a duty to protect spectators, staff, and players from third-party assaults if the danger is reasonably foreseeable, including foreseeable criminal conduct. In other words, knowledge of past violence and criminal conduct as regards a particular spectator or group of spectators can trigger a legal duty to ensure that adequate security is in place. See Must Youth Sports Protect Fans From Assault.
Knowledge of potential violence from outside third parties (ex: drive by shootings, gang activity) and failure to take action – Applying the same reasoning as regards spectator violence, if a sports organization has any knowledge that makes a violent act by an outside third party foreseeable (ex: rumor or threats on social media), such knowledge can trigger a legal duty to make sure adequate security is in place.
Anti-violence risk management techniques
Background check screening for coaches, administrators, and other volunteers
- Background checks are critical to defend against lawsuits alleging negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of staff.
- Should be a by-product of the existing sex abuse / molestation risk management screening of staff which is hopefully already in place.
- Background checks not only screen for incidents of child abuse, but also for other crimes against persons that could indicate a propensity towards violence.
- Any violation of your pre-existing disqualification criteria for staff which should include certain misdemeanors and felonies should result in disqualification.
Zero tolerance policy and codes of conduct
Sports organizations should have a zero tolerance policy for violent or other inappropriate behavior which may increase the chances of violence. Prohibition of these behaviors should be added to any existing code of conduct as applicable for players, staff, and parents/guardians/guests. Sports organizations that do not have these existing codes of conduct should develop them. Publication and enforcement of these codes of conduct is the cornerstone of any anti-violence risk management plan in sports.
Code of conduct basics
- Separate codes of conduct are needed for players, staff, and parents/guardians/guests.
- The codes of conduct should be made a part of a sports organization’s written rules and/or bylaws so that the sports organization is authorized to enforce violations. It’s too late to add a code of conduct after a prohibited behavior has already occurred.
- The sports organization should be consistent in its enforcement policies. Failure to consistently apply a code of conduct can result in a legal challenge.
- A written code of conduct contract should be signed as part of pre-season registration by all players, staff and parents/guardians.
- The codes of conduct and behavior expectations should be reviewed at a mandatory pre-season meeting.
- The codes should be distributed via email pre season and periodically throughout season as a reminder.
- The codes should be posted on team/league website and social media.
- Codes of conduct should always list possible sanctions to give them teeth.
- Sanctions against individual violators are important. However, sanctions that apply against the child of a violator (ex: suspension for a week from practice and games) or the entire team (ex: repeat violations during the season can result in DQ from playoffs or loss of attendance privileges) can provide an even more powerful disincentive.
- The applicable provisions of the code of conduct including sanctions for violation as it applies to parents/guardians and guests (ex: relative or friend of player) should be posted on signage upon entering facility. Since most facilities are owned by municipalities, the sports organization should bring mobile signage to display at events.
- Referees / umpires, authorized facility management, and team/league host administrators should be empowered to eject staff, parents/guardians/guests, and other spectators for inappropriate behavior.
- Sports organizations must be willing to enforce the codes.
Sample code of conduct signage
Parent/Guardians/Guests/Other Spectators Code Of Conduct
Sample player code of conduct anti-violence provisions
Sample staff (i.e. administrators, coaches, officials) code of conduct anti-violence provisions
Sample parents/guardians/guests code of conduct anti-violence provisions
Observation and situational awareness of premises
- Appoint a facility, host, or team/league point person to patrol sidelines, spectator areas, and parking areas to scan for risks of violence. The point person should have a special name tag or vest to evidence their authority. It is important that this person should be impartial and should represent both teams and all participants.
- Risks of violence include unauthorized persons in restricted areas, threats of violence, abusive language, other suspicious behavior, etc.
- Point person should be trained on the OHNO approach (or similar) which stands for observe, initiate a hello, navigate the risk, obtain help. See www.cisa.gov/power-hello
- In the event a risk if identified, the point person should immediately notify the facility official, host official, or head team/league administrator in charge and/or call 911.
Planning for foreseeable problems to allocate internal and police resources
- Administrators, coaches, parents, and players should be on the alert for threats of violence and should immediately notify officials.
- Threats of violence can be uncovered from face to face conversations, text messages, or social media.
- The sports organization should assign a point person to monitor social media and to receive information from players, coaches, and parents on potential violence.
- Increased risk factors include
- History of heated rivalry between teams
- History of difficult coach, parent, or spectator
- Racial tensions
- Rumors of possible violence
Engage local law enforcement
- Meet with law enforcement prior to the season to establish the proper contacts and what resources are available.
- The best contact is often the community policing representative.
- Law enforcement should be included in pre season emergency planning for risks of violence.
- Some locations may be so hazardous in the opinion of law enforcement that the facility should not be used.
- Law enforcement should be notified in advance for any game that has an increased risk of an incident.
- Request regular police patrols of the roads and parking areas of the facility.
- Ask about response times to an incident.
- High risk environments may require police presence and patrolling at games.
- Consider hiring private security if law enforcement can’t provide adequate resources, coverage, or response times.
- Make sure that the private security company can provide a certificate of insurance evidencing General Liability and Professional Liability.
- Be aware of indemnification and hold harmless agreements in contracts with private security which may make sports organizations contractually assume the liability which would ordinarily belong to the security company. Such contractual assumption of liability is typically not covered under General Liability policies taken out by sports organizations.
- Require sportsmanship and anti-violence training for staff and parents. A number of online training courses are available from sources including the National Alliance For Youth Sports which was one of the first organizations to introduce codes of conduct for coaches and parents.
- Positive reinforcement involving some type of season ending reward for parents such as refunding their child’s registration fees.
- State legislation which magnifies criminal and civil penalties for umpire/referee violence and other sports related violence.
The increasing frequency and severity of sports violence is on the radar screen of insurance carriers as an emerging risk. Carriers will likely want to see proactive anti-violence risk management measures. The most promising measures are education through published zero tolerance policies, codes of conduct, and strict enforcement of sanctions. Other carriers may want to add General Liability exclusions because it is not the intent of carriers to pay claims arising from assault & battery, gun violence, and drive by shootings for example.
Violence In Youth Sports: Possible Preventative Measures And Solutions; Cheryl Danilewicz; Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas
Players Health Active Shooter In Sport Guidebook, Oct. 2022
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