SI Vault
Edited by Craig Neff
March 03, 1986
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March 03, 1986


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As if the people who run sports didn't have enough to concern them, what with academic cheating, drug problems and labor disputes, they also have to worry about the skyrocketing cost of liability insurance. No sport is immune. Premium increases of 300% on liability policies have sent the cost of owning or renting a boat soaring. Coverage for hiking guides has become virtually unattainable, and the mountaineers are understandably worried; they aren't allowed to operate on U.S. Forest Service land without it. This year's Kansas City Grand Prix auto race has been canceled because organizers wouldn't pay $160,000 for a liability policy that cost $38,000 last year. One-year increases in insurance of more than 400% in some cases have sent ski-lift ticket prices skyward. Even the pony rides at Los Angeles's Griffith Park were threatened with closure last week until the city agreed to carry them on its own policy for six weeks.

Insurance industry officials say premium costs have soared in sports—just as they have for malpractice and other liability coverage in society as a whole—because of sharp increases in personal injury lawsuits, legal defense costs and the size of damage awards. Stan Cantor of Putnam, Knudsen and Wieking, an Oakland broker that insures more than 100 ice-and roller-skating rinks, says of the 17 firms nationwide that have handled insurance for rinks over the last eight years, "They have all lost money because of huge increases in payments."

As insurers try to cover their claimed losses by raising rates, customers suffer. In the Boston area alone, three ice rinks recently shut down, blaming increased insurance premiums as well as higher energy costs. The Ice Skating Institute of America, an association of some 400 rink operators, has warned that escalating insurance costs could "kill the sport."

Football has also felt the crunch. A decade ago there were a dozen companies making football helmets. Now, largely because of damage suits over injuries and the high cost of insurance, there are two. The increased product-liability premiums these companies pay are reflected in higher equipment costs. Schools feel a more direct pinch when they go to purchase their own ever-more-expensive liability insurance. In August the Seattle School District told its coaches to cease preseason contact drills, because its policy had lapsed and the only company willing to write a new one was charging an unreasonable fee. The ban against contact drills was lifted only when the school board opted for "self insurance"—it set aside $2 million against possible lawsuits—and adopted a no-fault insurance plan, under which it will offer medical expenses to the family of a severely injured athlete in exchange for a promise not to sue. Roughly two-thirds of the nation's school districts have now adopted no-fault plans.

Despite such measures, rising insurance costs are forcing cutbacks in facilities and programs. Divers at Canisius College in Buffalo and phys ed students in Washington County, Md. have had to give up their trampolines because such items make coverage more expensive. In Claremont, N.H., Stevens High officials considered dropping hockey because of insurance worries. "Kids are being hurt," says Bob Lucia, athletic director for the Kenmore- Tonawanda school district in western New York.

But in at least some instances, kids are also being helped. With huge liability awards in mind, Atlanta's Westminster School, once attended by Olympic diving gold medalist Jennifer Chandler, spent $1,970 on two new diving boards because the old ones had what athletic director Bob Ward describes as "minor cracks" that might have caused less concern in the past. Because of liability worries, Ward says, "we have become more cautious with the use of our facilities."

Speaking of insurance, there was a recent article in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review entitled "Should Ballparks Be Strictly Liable to Baseball Fans Injured by Foul Balls?" At one point in the piece, Dan S. Schechter, an associate law professor at Loyola, kiddingly hurls a question across the legal diamond: "Given the L.A. Dodgers infield, are fans seated along the first-base line subjected to a higher risk of injury?" Not, apparently, if they can duck. As Schechter notes, "To err is human; three err is Steve Sax."

Whether curse or blessing, the urge to write books has gripped the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. Among the Bears either working on or planning books are coach Mike Ditka, quarterback Jim McMahon, linebacker Mike Singletary and safety Gary Fencik. And there may yet be others. Surely, there will be books celebrating the team and its season, and at least a few lengthy looks inside the Refrigerator. Why this literary outpouring? We can only offer the words of Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

It's playoff time in high school basketball, and the silly new "seat-belt" rule (SCORECARD, Feb. 10) that keeps coaches seated during games continues to spoil the fun. Last week in Berlin, N.H., in a girls' state Class I quarterfinal game between Berlin High and Pembroke Academy, Pembroke rallied from seven points down in the final minute to move ahead 39-38. When Pembroke sank the tying and go-ahead free throws with six seconds left, everyone on the Spartans' bench gleefully leaped to her feet—including coach Rose Galligan, who was assessed a technical foul as a result. Berlin was given two shots, and converted both for a 40-39 victory.

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