COVID-19’s Legal Ramifications Part 5: Reopening Sports – Predicting Future Liability

This series is a discussion of the legal issues in the sports world amid the novel coronavirus. This is a first for our forum, where each of our contributors will be authoring at least one post, discussing either the sports world now, or what will likely happen in the future, during this unprecedented time. One post will be published each day, focusing on a new topic. Please check in each day for updates and feel free to comment with your questions or comments. Together, we will navigate this new landscape. #ubsportslaw #ublawsportsforum

Reopening Sports – Predicting Future Liability

While we are sitting at home for days on end and wearing gloves and masks at our local grocery stores as we pick up milk, it is hard to believe these days will end. But believe me, they will. Before we know it, we will be reserving our Sundays to gather on the couch and catch the game with friends and family, high school athletes will be boarding busses in pursuit of sectional titles, and tykes will be learning how to kick a soccer ball on a sunny Saturday morning. No matter what, the transition to “normal” will pose many challenges and potential liability at every turn.

It is quite easy to picture what potential liability may look like on a big scale, such as the NFL. What happens once stay-at-home orders are lifted, fans begin piling into stadiums, and then it is revealed that fans in the stadium were spreading the novel coronavirus? Who will be liable for the loss of lives that will likely result? Especially now that the spreading of this disease is foreseeable. If the NFL reopens its stadiums too soon it is likely that the league and owners alike will be liable for patrons developing COVID-19. Predicting what may happen under these circumstances on such a large scale is not nearly as difficult as considering what may happen on much smaller scales across the country.

What may be a more pressing question is: what is the potential liability for middle and high school athletes who are traveling in tight spaces on busses, preparing for games in hosting schools’ locker rooms, and returning home to their parents, grandparents, and siblings at the end of the day? One thing is certain: team sports rely on the chemistry of the team and camaraderie. How do teams practice teamwork when there is fear of spreading a deadly disease? The pockets are not nearly as deep in this circumstance as they are in the NFL, so what happens from a liability standpoint when we reopen high school athletics?

First, athletic directors, coaches, and school districts in general need to be aware that the threat of liability is heightened when injury is foreseeable. Therefore, given what we do know about COVID-19 and its ability to spread rapidly, allowing students to travel too frequently and too soon may lead to potential liability for the school. Whether considering reopening this spring, next fall, or next winter, there are some major considerations superintendents, athletic directors, and coaches must make. It is vital to remember that the biggest risk is the risk of the unknown. We all know that we don’t know everything about COVID-19, including how it is spread, and therefore the only way to tackle the unknown is to control what we can with what we do know.

Travel Considerations

Once the option to travel for athletic events reopens, teams must ease into this. This may mean only traveling with the necessary number of players and the head coach, eliminating non-essential functions such as stats keepers and timekeepers, which can be supplied by the hosting school. Other considerations to be made will include sanitizing locker rooms before and after a visiting team arrives, sanitizing busses, and ensuring that all athletes carry their own water bottles, including extra water bottles and eliminating the need to use communal beverage stations. Any players with any sort of fever 48 hours prior to an away game should not be allowed to play, nor should that player be allowed to travel.

Updating and Implementing Emergency Plans

All schools should be updating emergency plans to include not only an all-hazard emergency, but pandemic procedures. These procedures should require updating emergency contacts and ensuring suppliers for critical services and hygiene supplies. The CDC recommends that schools do this proactively before there is a case of COVID-19 identified in the local community. Federal agencies have developed resources to assist districts in creating plans to build and foster a safe and healthy school environment before, during, and after possible emergencies. Schools should identify these plans, choose which are best for their districts, and implement them as needed.

Following Simple Interventions

There are simple interventions that all schools should have been utilizing far before COVID-19. These interventions include staying home when sick, separating ill students and staff, hand hygiene (washing hands) and respiratory etiquette (covering coughs), and routine cleaning and disinfecting. Schools reopening and allowing students to travel for athletic events as well as host athletic events must be mindful of these simple, but very effective interventions.

Communication

It is vital that once it comes time to reopen schools and allow teams to travel and compete, schools communicate with each other, with parents, and with local health departments. Keeping all informed is absolutely necessary, where communities trust their school district to care for the students.

Going forward, school districts will need to be careful to avoid travel to “hot spots” and avoid hosting events when these “hot spots” pop up. Through all of the uncertainty, one thing is certain: COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly. Research provided by professionals specializing in infectious diseases suggests that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Therefore, even once reopening begins, administrators, athletic directors, and coaches will need to stay alert for possible resurgences in the outbreak – and make sure to communicate this with those who may have been exposed.

We need to remember that an innocent “away game” can turn deadly and we must stay alert, even once “reopening” begins. A cautionary tale is that of “The Soccer Match that Kicked Off Italy’s Coronavirus Disaster.” On February 19, approximately 40,000 spectators attended a soccer match as part of the Champions League, far before social distancing or even the coronavirus was on anyone’s mind. Not only was the stadium crowded, but the entire town was full. Before anyone knew it, thousands of asymptomatic carriers were high-fiving, hugging, and jumping around the stadium. Then they all went home. 35% of Valencia’s traveling squad returned home to Spain with an uninvited guest: COVID-19.

What the Future Holds

There will likely be an increased demand for youth and school sports, but the economy may limit what the schools and other programs can afford. This may show a decrease in participation in club sports. It is likely we will have a need for many volunteers and donations in order to help invigorate youth and high school athletics.

As youth and high school athletics slowly reopen, we must be wary about how quickly we reopen and how to slowly ramp up to 100%. School districts, athletic directors, and coaches will need to focus intently on following all safety guidelines as they reopen slowly to make sure to limit liability as much as possible. Regardless, athletes may begin to work on individual progress at home (see necessary exercises here, recommended by the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres physician) and continue to work toward the new “normal.”

What can we do Today?

While we wait and dream about the new “normal,” where we leave home without avoiding others, gather with our friends and family, and attend sporting events, there are some things we can do to keep a positive outlook and remember why it is that we love sports so much. Maybe we should all take a page from the men’s tennis teams at Jacobs and Huntley high schools who have been meeting with their teammates and coaches via Zoom. This past week, the boys met over Zoom for a rock-paper-scissors tournament. This is how the team meets now. They are able to meet and compete – keeping the camaraderie and enthusiasm alive.

Sports will come back. But, they need to come back the right way. We need to wait to reopen, reopen slowly and steadily, and following strict guidelines in order to limit liability and safeguard community health. The way we handle the next six months – even the next year – will determine how flat this curve stays, and how it decreases over time, making us all stronger and safer.

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