Thinking the Unthinkable

If a tragedy strikes your program, you will need lots of help. Be prepared by thinking now about who will do what and when.

By Tim Neal

Tim Neal is the Coordinator of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer at Syracuse University.

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

Most people in athletics understand the importance of being prepared for an emergency. But what about after the emergency has passed? How many athletic departments have a plan in place to manage the aftermath of a sudden death or disability of a student-athlete, coach, or staff member?

A couple of years ago, I was struck by tragic incidents at other schools and wondered what my athletic department would do to help the surviving family members, teammates, department staff members, and the university community. In response, I began developing a Catastrophic Incident Guideline for use here at Syracuse University.

As morbid as it may feel, athletic administrators need to plan for catastrophes. They can’t take the risk of being caught without an organized response. Even if your university or high school, as a whole, has already developed a plan for reacting to a catastrophe, you need a more specific one for your athletic department. A tragedy involving a student-athlete often needs to be handled differently than a tragedy to a member of the general student body.

For example, if a student-athlete dies on the field, will your department be ready to make travel arrangements for his or her parents, counsel teammates, and talk to the media? Will your coaches know how to document the incident, work with police, and notify your school’s legal counsel? If a player dies during the season, how will teammates and coaches deal with their grief while also getting on with the season?

The key to keeping a crisis from spinning out of control is to establish a set of guidelines for your specific department, one that revolves around athletic administrators, coaches, and student-athletes. In this article, I will share how we developed our catastrophic incident guidelines at Syracuse University, and what we learned in the process.

For our guidelines, we have defined a catastrophic incident as the death or disability of a student-athlete, coach, or staff member, whether it is the direct result of athletic participation or not. This includes severe head injury, loss of a paired organ (such as a kidney), spinal cord injury, or an injury that results in loss of hearing, sight, speech, or a limb.

In the event of a catastrophe, all staff members are directed to contact a member of the Catastrophic Incident Management Team (CIMT). If a catastrophe occurs during a game or practice, the athletic trainer on site will notify either the head athletic trainer or the athletic director, who will begin implementing the plan. If no athletic trainer is present, the head coach is to make the initial notification.

The situation is a little more complex when teams are on the road. Each team will have one person designated to act as a representative, usually either the head coach or the athletic trainer. This person will work with local authorities and gather information for the CIMT until a member of the management team is able to relieve them. If a catastrophe strikes outside the athletic arena, the coach will usually find out quickly from a team member, while in the case of illness, our doctors will let us know and we will enact our plan.

Although each incident will be unique, the immediate action plan in case of a catastrophe includes collecting the facts, supporting the individuals involved, working with other departments within the school, and refraining from public comments on the catastrophe. There are standard guidelines all staff members are expected to follow when the plan is implemented, whether they are part of the management team or not:

• Get all pertinent facts regarding the incident accurately and expeditiously.

• Accurately document all events, paying extra attention to listing all participants and witnesses.

• Secure any available materials and equipment involved.

• Respect the dignity of the individuals involved.

• Communicate immediately with the CIMT.

• Only members of the CIMT, or individuals they designate, are to speak on the incident to family members, media, other staff members, student-athletes, or coaches. No one else has clearance to speak on the incident.

• Instruct student-athletes that they are not to speak to anyone regarding the incident.

• Any communication with the media is handled through the Office of Athletic Communications and/or the Syracuse University spokesperson. All information deemed appropriate for release to the media will be determined by Syracuse University senior administration.

Centralizing communications is important because in a catastrophic situation, it is easy for misinformation to spread quickly. In my review of recent catastrophes, I saw some instances of people speaking out of turn without having all the facts and some people making suggestions out of context. This is why it is vital that the CIMT learns as much as it can, as quickly as it can, so the right information is provided in the right way.

Coaches may not typically be the main spokesperson with the media, but they will play a critical role in other communications. They know the team members and their families better than anyone else and should be involved in discussions with either group.

An important part of the plan is providing support for those affected. We have a good relationship with our school’s counseling services. They are on call 24 hours a day and have a Catastrophic Incident Stress Management Team that they can bring in to provide counseling to the team members, staff, and coaches. They can do this in group sessions and also individually.

We also involve the Dean of Hendricks Chapel, who will notify clergy members as needed. The Chapel staff would also arrange for any memorial services on campus.

While most people may be hesitant to tackle a project as imposing as writing a Catastrophic Incident Guideline, I found it to be a pretty straight-forward process. The first step is finding out what plans may already be place. Check with school-wide administrators to see what their emergency or crisis plans are. A specific athletics plan should weave tightly with the campus-wide plan so everyone works together. The athletics plan can even be a part of the campus-wide plan.

Here at Syracuse, our plan includes most senior athletic administrators and coaches, some university-wide administrators, our team physician, counseling services, the dean of the school chapel, our faculty athletics representative, risk management personnel, the director of public safety, and myself, as head athletic trainer. From this group, we selected a more specific CIM team, whose members would be the critical first responders. We included the director of athletics, head athletic trainer, university spokesperson, director of athletic communications, and director of risk management.

Also, think of all personnel who might be helpful as support personnel following a catastrophic incident. For example, we included the Associate Director of Athletics for Finance, who would coordinate any travel plans and housing for parents, staff, coaches, or student-athletes; the Director of Compliance, who would provide guidance on payment of incidental expenses to student-athletes along with any applicable NCAA regulations; and an athletic department insurance specialist to communicate health insurance procedures.

Our plan also reaches outside the athletic department to other people in the school and the general community and is designed to utilize off-campus contacts made by university personnel. For example, the team physician’s duties include communicating with any local medical personnel regarding medical facts of an incident. The school’s public safety department may also be involved in communicating with the Syracuse Police Department. This is especially critical when a crime might be involved.

We put the plan in place during a formal meeting with department administrators and the coaching staffs from all sports. I also had a more in-depth discussion with the members of my athletic training staff and the team physician.

We intend to review the plan annually, in part by talking with people who have experienced tragedies and by exploring other avenues we should address in the plan. One area we plan to look into is providing counseling and other support for the staff members involved in handling the catastrophe.

I hope that we will never have to use this plan. Nothing would make me happier than to have this be an academic exercise. But I take some small level of comfort in knowing we have a plan to follow in the aftermath of a terrible event.

SIDEBAR: It Can Happen
When Stephen F. Austin State University junior Greg Wallace died while shooting baskets in the school arena on Jan. 30, 2004, Head Athletic Trainer Sandy Miller had to rely on his memory. Last summer, Miller had attended a presentation on catastrophic injury guidelines by Tim Neal, Head Athletic Trainer at Syracuse University and author of this article’s mainbar. But Miller had yet to put his own plan on paper.

"I more or less remembered what the steps were," Miller says. "The best thing that came about from Tim’s discussion was the good communication skills that one has to have, from the AD to the university police to the ambulance driver, all the way down, and the importance of an organizational plan."

Miller’s situation was complicated by the fact that he was away from campus with the men’s basketball team when Wallace, a transfer student who had to sit out the season, died. As a result, Miller did much of his initial work over the phone.

Although Miller believes there were no major problems with the way the tragedy was handled, he says it will have affect the plan he is developing. "We need to be more active in training our people," he says. "We really hadn’t talked about this kind of crisis much before it happened."

Miller’s biggest message to others is that this can happen to anyone at anytime. "You have to get rid of the notion that it can’t happen in your situation because it can," he says. "And if you stay in this field long enough, it probably will."
— Dennis Read

SIDEBAR: The Contents
The following lists the contents of the Syracuse University Athletic Department Catastrophic Guidelines.

I. Introduction and Definition of Catastrophic Incident

II. Catastrophic Incident Management Team

III. Immediate Action Plan

IV. Chain of Command Responsibilities

V. Criminal Circumstances (Assault, Homicide, Suicide)

VI. Away Contests

VII. Summary Chronicle

VIII. Phone Numbers

A copy of the full guidelines are available at