Is this the end of Sport Clubs as we know them?

December 08, 2016

Or an opportunity for significant improvements in safety?

Ian McGregor, Ph.D.
President, SportRisk

Is the writing on the wall for Sport Club programs as we know them? The issue that has the potential to severely impact higher risk Sport Clubs is concussions. It’s hard to ignore recent news reports about concussions – particularly in the NFL, and more recently in the NCAA (check out class action lawsuit report:

In Canada, the Federal Government has announced significant funding to develop ‘national concussion management guidelines’:, with the injury-prevention charity Parachute ( tasked with ‘leading the development of harmonized concussion protocols through an advisory committee that includes doctors, teachers and coaches from across the country’.

In addition, with more and more concussions being reported, and the number of concussion-related lawsuits increasing dramatically, the Insurance industry has taken notice. A major insurer in the North American market has recently made a decision to exclude coverage of all traumatic brain injuries (this would include concussions) for all colleges, universities, educational institutions, municipalities and school districts. This new directive would be implemented on the policy renewal date. A wake up call indeed!

So it’s not a big stretch to realize that this issue is going to trickle down to Campus Recreation – sooner as opposed to later.

Where does the Insurance industry fit in?
Insurance companies provide liability coverage for Universities – and for most institutions, this coverage extends to Sport Club programs. Because of the potential for very large losses (and class action suits) due to concussion injuries, Insurance companies may simply stop providing this coverage – unless some controls are put into place to significantly reduce the risk. (Note that the concussion crises also extends to Sport Clubs operated at ‘arms length’ from the University. It may be even harder for these clubs to obtain insurance).

How prepared is Campus Recreation to handle this potential crises?
Recent data from SportRisk’s ‘Best Practices’ program
indicates that only 44% of reported schools (sample size >100) have concussion protocols in place for Sport Clubs (34% for Intramurals), with an even smaller percentage of schools reporting that Safety Officers (32%) and Intramural staff (25%) receive concussion protocol training. We have a long way to go!

What are the main issues?
Quite simply: (a) timely removal of a participant from the field of play if a concussion is suspected and (b) a return-to-play protocol that involves an outside expert e.g. a physician.

While varsity programs have the ability and expertise to implement effective concussion management protocols, such is not the case for the majority of Sport Clubs programs across North America. Very few Campus Recreation departments have full-time (or even part-time) Athletic Trainers (AT’s) on staff – with many schools even struggling to implement Sport Club safety officer positions – the very basic level of medical care possible.

Given the current Sport Clubs management structure at many universities (approx. one FT staff member for all clubs), is it realistic to now require these staff members to implement an effective concussion protocol – robust enough to satisfy the insurers?

And faced with a possible concussion crises on campus, senior administration is unlikely to self-fund a liability insurance program to cover Sport Clubs. So what choices are Campus Recreation faced with?

Consider some of the options:
a) Hire AT(s) responsible for Sport Clubs (also covering other recreation programs e.g. Intramurals)
b) Develop and implement a Campus Recreation concussion plan which may satisfy insurers.
c) Eliminate higher risk contact clubs.
d) Seek internal university partnerships (e.g. Varsity, Health Services, Kinesiology). See Florida State article in this Newsletter.
e) Explore external partnerships with community groups or individuals
(e.g. physicians, physiotherapists).
f) Other?

Can this be turned into an opportunity for Campus Recreation departments?

The answer is YES!

I have long been an advocate for better medical coverage for Sport Clubs arguing that there is no difference between some sport clubs and varsity sports. For example, it is not uncommon for a school to have women’s varsity rugby and men’s club rugby (or vice versa). It’s the same sport, the same risks – yet varsity and club are treated differently esp. in the area of medical care.

Campus Recreation departments must now come up with an acceptable solution – acceptable to the University and the Insurers. Otherwise it’s game-over for the Sport Club program as we currently know it.

NIRSA is in a position to play a leadership role by helping create concussion management plans which can be realistically implemented by Campus Recreation departments – and will satisfy the insurance industry. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution – but any plan will likely involve funding additional resources, e.g. more AT’s. For cash-strapped departments this will be a serious problem – but critical given the alternatives.

As the concussion crises rapidly unfolds, the immediate task is to start identifying options that make sense on your campus. First – get a handle on the insurance angle as it impacts your school or state. Ask administration the question about future liability insurance coverage for Sport Clubs – is this in jeopardy? Second – consider being proactive by presenting a plan or proposal to senior administration incorporating the following components:
*Description of the concussion crises and its implications to Campus Recreation
*Outline and cost of options (e.g. develop concussion protocol; add AT(s), partnerships etc.)
*Estimation of additional insurance costs (if applicable)
*Strong statement on the positives i.e. the importance of Sport Clubs to campus life

Keep tuned to ongoing developments in the coming months!

Despite the seriousness of the situation, there is no question that at the end of the day, our combined efforts will result in much safer Sport Club (and Campus Recreation) program.

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