Risk Management in Athletics and Its Impact on Interscholastic Sports

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A high school football coach training an athlete on how to carry a football..

Managing the business side of sports is not easy. Risk management is an important role of an athletic director that includes a variety of safety issues, such as keeping athletes safe, keeping fans safe, and protecting the school and athletic program against potential lawsuits.

Playing a sport comes with some level of risk, regardless of what level of sport is being played. Whether it’s a teenager playing in a pickup basketball game or a professional quarterback gunning for a Super Bowl victory; a student body cheering for their team on Friday night football or a fan sitting in the bleachers at a Red Sox-Yankees game; there is risk to be managed. Not only can players sustain an injury on the field, but spectators could be put in harm’s way by potential security threats and other concerns.

For those who are seeking a career in athletic administration, basic knowledge of risk management is an important competency for the job. This knowledge can be developed through enrollment in a formal degree program, such as an online master’s in athletic administration.

The Role of Risk Management in Athletics

The role of risk management in athletics largely encompasses two primary concerns. The first is preventing injuries or illness to anyone in the athletic program. In interscholastic sports, this ranges from student-athletes to spectators in the stands. Additionally, risk management means taking the proper steps to protect the school from liability should an accident or injury occur.

Risk to Players

Players must be protected not only during competitions but also during practice. This may involve any number of activities, including:

  • Ensuring that coaches are properly educated on the best ways to mitigate injury and promote wellness
  • Ensuring consistent implementation of safety policies
  • Equipping athletic trainers to spot warning signs of injury and to put the players’ physical well-being above all else
  • Properly maintaining equipment and facilities to maximize player safety

Risk to Fans

Risk management in athletics also takes into account spectators and fans. Proper maintenance of facilities is key to diminishing the risk of injury. A comprehensive risk management strategy should also incorporate sufficient security at public events, potentially including the presence of security personnel, security checks for anyone entering the arena, and emergency preparedness plans that can be implemented in case of a security breach.

Risk Management and Legal Compliance

Risk management, in addition to keeping athletes and fans safe, involves protecting the school’s athletic program against potential lawsuits. To mitigate legal liability, it’s important for athletic administrators to be aware of the relevant laws and how they impact interscholastic athletic programs. Some examples include:

  • Title IX. Title IX is a federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. Title IX is a complex law that requires an understanding of the law itself, its application to interscholastic athletics, reporting requirements and how to conduct a Title IX audit.
  • The American Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. This comes into play in a variety of situations including public education and accessibility of facilities.
  • The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA provides guidelines to determine if and when a school may release information from a student’s educational records. (Generally, such disclosures can only be made with express approval from the student and/or the student’s family.)
  • Tort laws. Tort law involves a person or entity who fails to act as an ordinary and reasonable person under similar circumstances and causes injury to another person. Most common in interscholastic athletics is the tort claim of negligence. It is imperative that athletic directors understand their duties and the steps needed to fulfill the duty of care.

These are just a sample of the laws that are important for athletic directors to know, understand and be able to ensure compliance. Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration program provides this foundational knowledge, particularly through courses such as Legal Foundations in Interscholastic Athletics. The curriculum helps prepare students with the knowledge to effectively incorporate legal compliance in risk management strategies.

Current Issues in Interscholastic Sports (COVID-19)

The risk management issues that impact interscholastic sports are always in flux. As the world has seen over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has required unique responses and restrictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal government, state governments, governing bodies, state associations and school districts have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have developed policies and practices that will protect participants in interscholastic sports but also will protect the liability of those operating athletic programs. From limiting the number of students at a practice to developing new expectations for participation (monitoring body temperature, wearing masks, using individual water bottles) to waivers or pledges, officials are trying to find ways to continue to hold athletic practices and events while also maintaining a safe environment.

Athletic administrators must be aware of these and other evolving issues such as transgender participation and hazing. In addition, they must develop and ensure risk management strategies that take these issues into account.

Learn More About Risk Management in Athletics

For prospective students who are interested in a career overseeing an interscholastic athletic program, Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration degree can help develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed.

Learn about the program’s robust curriculum and its inclusion of key legal components. Discover more about the growing field of risk management in athletics.

Recommended Reading:

Thinking Outside the Box: Revenue Sources for Athletic Departments

Legal Protection for Athletic Trainers

Challenges of Adding New Sports to Athletic Programs


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ANALYSIS: Athletic Fields Become Battlefield Over Transgender Student-Athletes

National Federation of State High School Associations, Disabilities Law Applied to Scholastic Athletics Programs

National Federation of State High School Associations, Hazing in High School Athletics

North Carolina High School Athletic Association, Risk Management

Ohio University, Online Master of Athletic Administration

The School Superintendents Association, Managing the Risks of School Sports

U.S. Department of Education, Family Educational rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

U.S. Department of Education, Title IX and Sex Discrimination