By John Engh
In the following scenarios, ask yourself what you would do as a recreation professional:
An 11-year-old boy is at baseball practice. All the players on his team are actively participating in a drill. Some of the kids are fielding grounders and throwing to first base. Some are in the outfield fielding fly balls. Another player is taking swings at the plate, taking pitches, hitting balls into play, and running the bases after a couple hits. By all accounts, the coaches have this down. Practice is very choreographed. While the coach on the mound pitches, all eyes are on home plate. If the ball is not hit into play, the adults in the infield and the outfield hit a ball to the waiting defensive players. If it is hit into play, the batter plays the ball out. Once the batter hits his fifth ball into play, he runs to first and continues to round the bases.
I know this drill well; I did a version of it with many of the teams I played on growing up. Baseball can be a boring game, so it’s important to keep practices moving—engaging kids in as many ways as possible. And of course, it’s important to be as safe as possible. By all accounts, the three coaches in attendance were being very safe. The problem is—just like anywhere else—accidents happen.
The 11-year-old boy in question was running down the base path and was hit in the face by an errant throw. He fractured his orbital bone and was traumatized by the incident. In court papers, his parents said his grades slipped the following year and he didn’t want to play baseball again. The city, the volunteer-run youth league, and the coaches were all named in a lawsuit alleging negligence.
The city long ago decided that all volunteer coaches would be trained and insured. But for years, it had not followed up on how the volunteer-run leagues monitored training. The league had no idea that the city required coach training. It submitted an insurance policy when receiving an annual permit, but the limits weren’t close to handling the total damages in the suit. The coaches were not covered by any policy and had not gone through a training program of any kind.
A settlement has been reached with the city, but the suit is still open, and damages have not been determined for the league and the coaches.
In another incident, 12 4- and 5-year-old boys had just finished a T-ball game. A team mom was getting snacks ready, the head coach was packing up equipment, and parents were gathering outside the chain-link fence. Some of the kids were still running in the outfield, and others were goofing off near the open gate. A 4-year-old boy on the team, having fun, was running from another teammate when he ran into the open gate latch, which collapsed his eye. After a couple months and surgeries, it was certain he would never see out of that eye again.
The lawsuit named the recreation agency, the administrator overseeing the program, who was on-site that evening, and the head coach, a 24-year-old single mother with a child playing on the team. The suit alleged that, since the recreation agency had not trained the coaches on proper safety—including having all adults on the field knowing proper first aid and having access to a first-aid kit—they were all at fault. In this instance, the first-aid kit was close by in the concession stand, and by all accounts everyone involved acted responsibly immediately after the accident.
So what could have been done differently in these situations? In both cases, most people would agree that the accidents were not preventable. But in cases like these, that is simply not enough. Administrators take on a huge responsibility when overseeing youth sports, and the two most important words in situations that are likely to happen, are these: due diligence. It is loosely defined as the reasonable steps that should be taken to satisfy a legal requirement.
Attorneys on both sides in lawsuits like the ones above ask the following: What do you do on a daily, weekly, monthly, and even annual basis to make sure the participants (or as the plaintiff’s attorney in the last deposition I gave called them, the babies) are safe in your programs?
In these examples, both organizations had in place training standards for administrators and volunteers that simply had not been followed. As a consequence—whether at fault or not—responsible parties had to answer some very uneasy questions.
What steps have you taken to practice due diligence in your programs? Or, as I like to say in our training, what are you doing to build a wall of protection around your programs?
John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email email@example.com or call (800) 729-2057.