Hall of Shame

It’s better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own. The following risk management incidents fall into this author’s “Hall of Shame.”

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CMAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The Athletic Administrator’s Scheduling Book, published by LRP Publications.

Athletic Management, 15.5, August/September 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1505/gpshame.htm

The vast majority of coaches are outstanding contributors to the development of students. There are times, however, as in all professions, that they goof. When it is a risk management blunder, the result can be an injury, followed by litigation.

The following incidents fall into an athletic “Hall of Shame.” Every one resulted in serious injury or was life threatening, and every one brought on a lawsuit.

They are offered to show what can go wrong when athletic department staff forget about sport safety. My hope is that by reviewing examples of poor coaching, we can decrease the chance of future injuries and lawsuits. This athletic “Hall” does not need new inductees.

1. Lack of qualifications
An experienced high school swimming coach was also a middle school physical education teacher. Because of his coaching background, he was asked to teach swimming classes. He was given an assistant.

At the end of a class, a student notified the coach that someone was at the bottom of the deep end. The coach instructed the student to dive in and see if the kid was “fooling around.” Returning to the surface, the student said no, he was not fooling around.

Since the coach was wearing a sweatsuit and sneakers, and his assistant could not swim, the coach obtained a shepherd’s crook and lifted the drowning child to the surface. Fortunately, the boy lived.

An investigation and subsequent lawsuit found that the coach was never certified in any Red Cross program, including lifesaving, nor was he ever asked to present such documentation. Coaches must be proficient in what they teach.

2. Inappropriate equipment
A well-meaning football coach devised an offseason conditioning drill based on a television infomercial. To save money, he purchased a number of six-foot-long bungee cords rather than the specially designed cords featured in the infomercial. One cord was tied to each side of a pair of shoulder pads, and a partner held the cord as the wearer of the pads tried to run forward.

The cord snapped. The holder lost an eye.

Use only acceptable equipment. When in doubt, seek additional advice.

3. Inappropriate planning
A hard-working baseball coach wanted to get more batting practice in during workouts. He placed one pitcher to the right of the mound and a second pitcher to the left of the mound. Each pitcher had a catcher and faced a batter. Each corresponding batter and catcher were outside the normal batting box.

Pitcher A threw a pitch followed by Pitcher B. Pitcher B was not to throw until Batter A swung at the pitch. Timing was everything.

Unfortunately, Batter A hit the ball directly into the eye of Pitcher B while Pitcher B was in his wind up.

Creativity and efficiency are good qualities of coaching, but not at the sacrifice of safety.

4. Lack of supervision
A coach walked by a recreational table tennis room and noticed students doing back flips, using sofa pillows as protective mats. He told the students to stop. Unfortunately, he then gave his wrestling room keys to the students and told them to do “that stuff” on protective wrestling mats.

Ten minutes later, one of the boys ran into the coach’s office yelling for help. One of the students couldn’t get up after missing a flip. He was paralyzed.

The coach knew that the students were attempting flips. He even encouraged the boys to continue by making the wrestling room available. Yet, he did not supervise the students.

5. Inappropriate preparation
As starting time approached for a small college rugby match, the coach found his team one player short. The captain suggested that he could ask his roommate, a 200-pound former high school football player, to fill in. The coach said, “Good idea.”

Ten minutes later, the captain returned with his still half-asleep roommate. The roommate was given a jersey and five minutes of instruction before jogging onto the field with the team.

Twenty minutes into the game, the newest player on the field drove the top of his helmet-less head into a ball carrier. His head made contact with a knee. The paralysis ended his rugby career.

The coach made many bad decisions that day. The worst was allowing a player with no training to participate in the sport.

6. Inappropriate facilities
A football coach demanded a hard surface be installed at the bench area of the field to prevent damage to the grass. He agreed that the surface should be at least 15 feet off the sideline. The athletic director put it 20 feet off the field and extended the hard surface to encircle the pole vault landing pit so the facility would have a more finished look.

It did make the pole vault area look good. Unfortunately, it also made the area more dangerous.

In the spring, a vaulter bounced off the landing pad and struck his head on the hard surface, suffering a fractured skull, with complications. If turf or additional mats (which were available and used at other meets) were used, it would have significantly reduced the likelihood of this injury. (The case helped strengthen the rules regarding hazards around pole vault landing pits.)

When you attempt to improve one environment, make sure you are not creating hazards to another one.

7. Inappropriate instruction
Two members of a track team were assigned to mark distances for the team’s first javelin practice of the season. Both students had no experience in the javelin or as markers for the javelin. The day was windy and cold. Both markers were wearing hooded sweatshirts.

The students were told to remain together and stand approximately five feet outside the throwing sector, which was located on the infield of the track. Witnesses reported that the two boys spent more time watching other events and were repeatedly warned to pay attention by a coach.

An errant throw was seen by one of the markers, and he shouted “head’s up.” The second marker turned, looked up, and was struck in the face by the javelin.

Both markers stated they received no instruction regarding marking the javelin, or any warnings whatsoever, and stood where the field coach told them to stand. The markers did not hear the coach announce the next thrower.

Under deposition, the coach said he had no system of getting the attention of the markers. The coach stated he did not have a whistle. When asked why he did not make sure the markers were paying attention, he said, “I was not their baby sitter!”

Despite the lack of preparation, training, and warnings for this very high-risk sport, as well as demonstrating a most cavalier attitude, a jury, unbelievably, found in favor of the coach. The coach was more fortunate than his javelin marker.

All seven examples of poor athletic risk management could have and should have been avoided by professional judgment and caring about young people. Let them be examples of what can go wrong when safety is overlooked.