Risk Management and Risk Minimization in Interscholastic Sports

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The Iowa High School Athletic Association understands how important athletics programs can be and how much influence teachers and mentors can have on young people. Because the state takes its responsibility seriously, it also takes risk management in sports seriously.

Football Helmet and Shoulder Pads

Sports journalist Chad Eisberry discusses Iowa’s approach to athletic risk management in his Des Moines Register article, “Risk-Minimization: High School Sports’ Biggest Game Changer.”

According to Eisberry, concussion management practices found their way into the Code of Iowa (290.13C), requiring interscholastic athletics departments to follow specific procedures to avoid concussions. Parents of high school athletes receive a fact sheet at the beginning of the school year detailing the state’s position on concussions in sports.

The Iowa example indicates just how seriously state governments and school boards all over the country are taking athletic risk management. As post-graduate students earn their masters in athletic administration online and enter the workforce, they will be expected to understand how to put into action their athletic department’s risk management plan.

Important Risk Management Considerations

Interscholastic athletics risk management consists of injury management, proper equipment, injury prevention (which includes concussion management), insurance, playing-field techniques, facilities, and baseline testing, according to Kevin Hoffman’s article, “Protecting Your Athletic Program,” on the Coach & A.D. website.

“At the forefront of critical issues facing athletic directors is injury management, particularly with growing concerns over concussions and what schools are doing to protect student-athletes” explains Hoffman. “While it’s nearly impossible to prevent injuries—especially in contact sports like football—there are precautions athletic departments should take to limit the dangers.”

Hoffman also itemizes other important categories of risk management:

  • Proper equipment: Protective wear, pads, and helmets must be top-of-the-line and in good condition to maximize their protective qualities.
  • Technique on the playing field: Strengthening and conditioning exercises, along with proper play maneuvers and training, are designed to minimize the possibility of injury.
  • Facilities: Fields and courts that present safety hazards should be repaired, replaced, or renovated to eliminate unnecessary risks.
  • Baseline testing: Athletic departments should test students ahead of time to discover any pre-existing problems before an injury occurs. Testing can involve physicals and initial fitness tests.

Concerning baseline testing, Hoffman points out that if the tests are done properly, athletes can be saved from potentially life-threatening injuries and athletic departments can avoid expensive lawsuits. Some students, however, learn how to circumvent the system, passing the baseline test even though they may have a serious problem.

In addition to physical risks, athletic administrators also need to be sensitive to the mental and emotional well being of their student athletes, according to Ohio University MAA staff member Mike Crauder. Hazing and harassment practices among students may trigger emotional issues, he notes.

Insurance And Risk Prevention For Inevitable Injuries

Proper equipment, better facilities, and safe training techniques can lessen the probability of injury. Unfortunately, injuries still take place. And when they do, a school needs to have good insurance in place and implement a good risk prevention policy.

“The first, most important, and easiest step in the [risk management] process is to buy the best, most comprehensive insurance that’s available,” writes Sadler Sports & Recreation Insurance owner John M. Sadler in “Implementing a Risk Management Program for Sports Organizations” on his company’s blog.

“But a risk management program to reduce liability and injuries is also needed because even if your insurance does cover the claim and protect everyone’s assets, it’s a terrible feeling when someone is unnecessarily injured under your watch. If you have a serious injury and face litigation, you, the program, and your reputations can suffer a black eye in the community and in the local media.”

Enter the risk prevention policy. The Special Olympics Coaching Guide presents a comprehensive list of risk prevention steps and procedures that can easily apply to any interscholastic athletic program:

  • Assess athletic readiness and skill: The coaching staff should determine a good starting point for each student, taking care not to push children into athletic activities they are not yet strong enough to handle safely.
  • Encourage a year-round fitness schedule: If students fail to hold themselves to a fitness schedule during the summer months and other long breaks from school, they may be more prone to injury when the season starts up again.
  • Develop a sport-specific training plan: Different sports tax the body in different ways. Coaches should develop fitness programs that strengthen the parts of the body most needed by the sport in which the student is participating.
  • Require all forms to be filled out correctly: Medical forms that must be signed by parents, especially those that detail special medical needs information (Epi-pens and diabetic insulin, for example) need to be completed and filed appropriately.
  • Stock first-aid kits: First-aid supplies need to be fully stocked and ready to use at a moment’s notice, at all times, and especially during games.
  • Watch out for hot temperatures: When the temperature is high and the sun is shining, particularly in Southern states, coaches should ensure that athletes are staying properly hydrated, protecting their skin from the sun, and taking breaks to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
  • Watch out for cold temperatures: Just as with hot temperatures, cold temperatures present risks. Students can still become dehydrated in cold weather. They also should wear warm clothing to prevent hypothermia.
  • Know about altitude problems: Air is thinner at high altitudes than it is at sea level. Coaches need to watch their students for altitude sickness, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
  • Watch out for wind: Most schools close during tropical storms and hurricanes, but a strong storm front can produce gusts at speeds comparable to hurricane winds. Wind can carry debris, which can harm students when it is traveling through the air at high speeds.

Following these steps is the essence of risk minimization. Athletic directors who adhere to the guidelines can expect to see fewer injuries in their athletes.

A solid risk prevention policy will not only help prevent lawsuits and other legal problems, it will help to keep students safe and prevent serious, lifelong injuries from occurring. Athletic directors should prioritize risk management practices to maintain a safe, fun, and educational athletic department.

Crauder also points out that in addition to risk prevention policies, athletic directors need to stay current with best practices, which evolve over time. Recently, he notes, new best practices regarding blood-borne pathogens and concussion protocols have resulted in a safer environment for both students and teachers.

Clear communication is necessary to keep administrators, coaches, students, and parents up-to-date on safety procedures and new risk management activities.

Learn More About Ohio University’s Online Master’s In Athletic Administration

Ohio University houses one of the first academic programs in the nation to offer post-graduate educational options in the field of sports administration. Since its inceptions, OU’s online Master’s in Athletic Administration program (MAA) has consistently graduated skilled athletic directors who understand the importance of interscholastic sports risk management.

Ohio University’s sports management online courses focus on preparing interscholastic athletic directors to nurture student-athletes and run athletic departments. As part of their program, Ohio University MAA students can take Legal Foundations of Risk Management in Athletics (SASM 6280), which covers legal concepts necessary for athletic administrators.

Ohio University’s MAA program is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA) and prepares students for National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. For more information, visit Ohio University’s MAA page.


Recommended Reading:

Return to Action Steps for Post-Concussion Athletes

An Athletic Director’s Responsibilities and Career Outlook

The Benefits of Interscholastic Athletic Programs



Risk Minimization in Iowa – Des Moines Register

Concussion Management Guidelines – IDPH.Iowa.gov

Protecting Athletic Departments – Coach & A.D.

Risk Management and Insurance – Sadler Sports & Recreation Insurance

Coaching Guide – Special Olympics