Sports Law Blog
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Sunday, March 07, 2004
 

Legal Implications of Rushing the Court: College basketball season always means great games, come-from-behind wins and upsets. Following those upsets and great games, intense student fans often try and become part of the moment and the team by leaving the stands and rushing onto the court. A number of prominent coaches, including Louisville's Rick Pitino, have complained about the practice, saying they often feel in danger of injury from the onslaught of fans. Despite this threat, however, few schools have taken measures to curtail the wave of students at the end of the game.

Unfortunately, it may take a serious injury or other tragedy for schools to crack down on students leaving the stands. At many schools, fans must climb over members of the press and race past non-student fans to get down on court level. On a number of broadcasts, prominent ESPN announcer Dick Vitale has admitted his fear at the end of games, saying that the students "came right over him." On the floor, opposing coaches and teams often have trouble dodging the mob and getting into the locker room. How long will it take before a rowdy fan incites an emotional player, causing a fight that could turn into a melee? Or before a member of the media is trampled by a rushing crowd, causing serious injury?

In this case, could the host school be held liable for the injuries? I would think that the school and the arena management company, if different, could both possibly be held liable for the injuries. Arena management has the duty to provide a safe environment for all players and patrons, before, during and after the game. At professional sporting events, such as the World Series, extra security is brought in to ensure that fans remain off the field during any celebrations. There is no reason why college arenas could not provide the same level of protection. Students rushing the court could have their tickets revoked for the remainder of the year, or they could be subject to disciplinary action by the university. Yes, the punishment may be harsh, but after it was imposed on a group of students, rushing the court would no longer be considered by student bodies.

There are other alternatives, especially in college venues. At many colleges, the coach has a considerable amount of influence on their student sections. Earlier this year, Maryland coach Gary Williams gave a speech to his students, asking them to refrain from yelling obscene chants and wearing t-shirts with profanity. If Williams, or a coach with similar stature, asked his students not to rush the court, most if not all fans would comply. Those that did not could be punished. At Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, stadium officials use a simple system to keep students in the stands. At the buzzer, a rope is quickly stretched across both sides of the student section. While seemingly a small deterrent, the rope holds the students back, allowing both teams to shake hands and leave the floor. Only at this time can students come onto the floor (which at Duke is the way most students exit). However, the measure prevents the greatest danger, the unthinking mob rush onto the floor.

Universities have incredible liability at stake -- anyone injured in such an incident will not sue the student, because the university surely has "deeper pockets." In order to protect themselves, schools and arenas should take the steps necessary to keep students where fans belong -- off the court and in the stands. It should not take a grave injury for colleges to act -- if the schools act now, injuries can be avoided and everyone can celebrate in a safe atmosphere.

Update: Skip Sauer informs me that such an injury recently occurred at a high school basketball game in Tucson. This highlights the dangers of rushing the court and the urgent need for increased security measures. Best wishes for the recovery of this student and for procedures that will prevent similar avoidable tragedies in the future.

Update For legal precedent on related issues, see this post. For more examples of injuries that have already occurred and what some schools are doing, see this post.





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