Thunder & Lightning
February 05, 2013
One strike and you’re out!
Director of Athletics
University of New Brunswick
Saint John Campus (UNBSJ)
Athletics Directors can count on the fact that every day presents different and unique challenges in the area of Risk Management. And so it was on this particular day. Nothing out of the ordinary. The only thing pressing was the time frame to get all the games played without delay as visiting teams were travelling 4-5 hrs and not staying overnight.
The varsity soccer teams were scheduled to play at 2:00 PM (women) and 4:00 PM (men) with the football club set for a 6:00 PM start. It was sunny and quite warm for a fall day. The women’s game was therefore very pleasant and the conditions were perfect. Just the kind of scenario we all hoped for when the day began. Even the opposing team was happy with the venue, the changing rooms, the field and the officials.
The women’s game ended on time and the men’s game started at 4:00 PM as scheduled. The temperature was still warm enough that people hadn’t really notice that the clear blue sky was now cloud-covered. Still, all in all, it was nice. As the game moved into the second half, dark, ominous clouds had gathered up a storehouse full of rain waiting to be unleashed just as the weather forecast had predicted. We were hoping that the men’s game would finish before the downpour.
None of us can control the weather, even if we sometimes think we can do so by “wishing” the sun to be present for the entirety of the event. The soccer game would have continued during the rain, as it was being played on an artificial turf field. However, a much bigger issue emerged, one that we weren’t completely ready for. It was supposed to rain but that was going to be the extent of it.
However, with thunder rumbling in the air, I went to check things out – there was a buzz in the stands and I saw first-hand a bolt of lightning. I have to be honest, my very first inclination was to ignore it and HOPE that we could somehow finish the final 14 minutes of the game. After all, what could really happen in 14 minutes? Surely we could finish the game and send the soccer teams safely on their way. THEN we could deal with the upcoming football game. Well, these thoughts lasted for a moment and then an internal debate with myself took place regarding the referee. “Why isn’t the referee stopping this game? Wasn’t he supposed to abandon game the moment he saw lightning?” I was looking for him to stop the game but on it went. Again, the thought went through my head that we only had 14 minutes left and the referee is on the field in good position to make the call. “Let him do his job”.
I came to my senses and used some information that I had learned during the “Special Events” Risk Management online course. The facility operators are the decision makers in cases like this, not the on-field official – don’t rely on them. As soon as this came to mind, I immediately knew that I had to exert control over this situation, so I walked right on the field of play and halted the game. It was surprisingly difficult to do that and it surprised players, coaches and officials. None of us would normally walk on to a field and break up a game being played.
The game got delayed for at least 30 minutes as we waited for the thunder and lightning to pass by. It didn’t. The soccer game was abandoned. We moved into the next tough phase of the day. Football was now delayed. The teams had been dressed since 5:00 PM in anticipation of getting a good warm-up in before the rushed 6:00 PM start (football normally warms up for at least an hour but that wasn’t going to happen this day). Players and coaches were anxious to get things going. The other team had travelled five hours to play the game and thus had a five hour trip home after the game. So, everyone was on edge and tempers flared a couple of times. I was expecting that and was not bothered to any great extent. The home team had worked hard to promote the game and a strong crowd was expected. They relied on a good crowd to help raise money to support the costs of operating the club. So, I could understand their frustration with the poor weather and with the delay which made things doubly as bad.
The 6:00 PM football game kick off time came and went. So, did 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM. The players had been in their gear for three hours now and hadn’t set foot on the field. Everyone was restless and everyone wanted to play football. It had become like watching an overtime period in hockey playoffs. Once you were invested in one overtime period, you had to watch the rest of the game no matter how late it got and no matter how many periods were played.
Everyone knew the decision-making power was in my hands, so I had several people hovered around me for the duration of the delay asking when we will be starting. They just wanted to play. Bottom line was the games were not going to be played until the weather allowed for it. I didn’t care if I was unpopular with everyone there. Having said that, I did communicate regularly with officials, coaches and administrators throughout the evening so that we could gather the most up-to-date weather forecast and respond accordingly.
By 8:00 PM, only a handful of football fans remained but the bad weather had blown past and a clear evening sky emerged. The rain, thunder and lightning had stopped. We waited another 35 minutes just to be sure that the lightning had departed and then the players who had been so restless and upset were all at once happy to be able to get out on the field for their warm-up and subsequent game. So, at approximately 9:15 PM the long awaited football game got underway. Everyone was pleased and even though there had been a long delay, the football players, coaches and officials thanked me for standing my ground and keeping them safe amidst all the complaining that had taken place during the delay.
Here are some lessons that I learned from this experience:
- Everyone wants SOMEONE to take charge of a situation, even when they are unhappy with, and complaining about the decision(s) being made
- Make the response quickly and authoritatively. Upon analysis of the day, I probably could have recognized sooner that the soccer referee was not likely going to stop the game, as he was solely focused on getting the game finished. It was a bit surreal and it took a minute to get my bearings. The good news is that I did make the decision to abandon the game before anyone got hurt
- Game times, delays and other such variables are not relevant when it comes to lightning. Make your decision and stick to your guns. A critical point to emphasize is that the people who were complaining, agitated and upset during the delay, were the same people who congratulated me on being strong with the decision to delay. People ultimately appreciate the leadership that keeps everyone safe. One soccer or football game is meaningless. One life is everything.