Free Online Training Promotes Safe Sports Events

Location: Nationwide By Becky Lewis Published June 2015

There’s that angry voice again, the one cursing at the opposing team and the officials. Ah, there he is, with the red jacket… and the red face.

At the approach of the slight woman in the “Event Staff” vest, the man becomes even more belligerent, shouting “What do YOU want?” in her direction.

“’I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but you seem upset. Can I help you with something?”

Although the soft approach might seem to many people to be the wrong way to address this problem, according to free online training on staffing sporting events, as often as not it succeeds in immediately calming unruly spectators down, thus averting fights that could end up erupting to involve the entire crowd. When this approach doesn’t succeed, event workers who’ve completed the Safe Sports Zone training have learned other alternatives to use to try to defuse the situation. The training also addresses many other ways they can help keep games safe and fun for spectators and teams alike, including stopping trouble at the gate, building positive relationships with students and other fans, and being aware of potential trouble “hot spots” such as the concession stand at halftime (for more details, see sidebar, “7 Steps to Event Success.”)

“We train them to handle a crowd by breaking it into sections and scanning each section every 30 seconds. We want them always looking up into the crowd and always thinking. We teach them to look for anger issues, to identify loud voices. It’s usually just one or two people who get out of control and start trouble. We teach them to identify potential troublemakers by what they’re wearing and remember that, because sometimes they move. And we teach them to defuse anger,” says Jay Hammes, former athletic director at William Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., and creator of Safe Sports Zone.

Training also covers paying attention to behavior, rather than profiling by physical characteristics: event workers learn to watch spectators’ hands and eyes, looking for people who keep their hands out of sight or who constantly scan the area as if looking for an escape route. It’s all part of working to make events safe and enjoyable for everyone.

“If you go to a school, any school, during the day, you have to show a photo ID. When the dismissal bell rings, that policy stops, and yet education through activities continues, in fine arts and drama as well as in sports. The fact is, you have more visitors coming in after the dismissal bell than during the school day,” Hammes says. “Too often in this country, we wait until there’s a tragedy and then react instead of doing something proactive.”

It was reaction to a near-tragedy that led Hammes to develop Horlick High’s sports event training program, which eventually became Safe Sports Zone. In 2003, Hammes left an away basketball game where his school held a comfortable lead, and walked into gunfire, “with bullets whizzing past my ear and hitting the mortar behind me.” Although police never determined whether Hammes was the intended victim or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, it changed the way the Racine school approached athletic events.

“I went back to school on the following Monday and gathered our troops together. We came up with a good plan, and my colleagues from other schools started to say, ‘you need to share this,’ ” Hammes says.

Safe Sports Zone offers the training component online for free (there is a cost for in-person training), and users incur no obligation to use the website’s other services. Hammes hopes that school superintendents and principals who learn about the online training will make it a requirement for their staff members. In addition to the one-hour video component, the package includes a downloadable syllabus and a post-test that results in certification by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. (The present form of the training flows continuously rather than being segmented into separate lessons, but a free 10-part mobile app version is in development.)

One administrator who would like to see it included with required training in his state and area is Kent Doades, athletic director and assistant principal at North Knox Junior/Senior High School in Knox County, Ind. Doades participated in a Safe Sports Zone training session at a conference in May 2015, came back and completed the online training, and not only encouraged his own school’s coaching staff to take it, he also recommended the training to the Indiana state athletic directors’ association as a course that could be included among those that coaches statewide can take to meet training requirements. (Indiana State High School Commissioner Bobby Cox indicated via email to Doades on June 12 this is under consideration.)

“This was the first training I’d found related to afterschool and sports events. As athletic director, I have to supervise every school sports event, and I picked up some good tips on different ways to maintain security at sporting events,” Doades says. “One thing I can do right away is have more bodies and more eyes at our events. Currently it’s me, our principal, our other assistant principal and our SRO. Having more staff at our events and giving us a few more pairs of eyes would be pretty easy to implement.”

At North Knox, a 600-student, grades 7-12 consolidated school serving several small towns, most of the school’s coaching staff can be found in attendance at football games, and “if they’ve taken the training, they will know what to watch for even if they aren’t there as paid staff.”

According to the training, there are more than 18,000 schools in this country that offer afterschool activities, and if each school averages 25 individuals involved in coaching and monitoring those activities, that means nearly a half-million people work at afterschool sporting events, most of them with little or no training.

“Budgets have been slashed and public schools in particular are hurting. The lack of training is not caused by apathy, it’s caused by a lack of money,” Hammes says. “People say you can always find the money, but you can’t. We’re not in this for the money, we’re trying to help schools, and that’s why we’re offering the free training.”

7 Steps to Event Success

According to the free online training, there are seven steps involved in promoting safety at afterschool sporting events:

  1. Select the Event Management Team. Members of the team should include the public address announcer, local law enforcement, legal representation, administrators and trainers. Tips include dressing alike, possibly with custom t-shirts or vests; standing up during games; and not using personal cell phones during an event.
  2. Develop a Master Plan for the Event Management. Consider possibilities such as bad weather, fire and fights. Plan how to evacuate the area. Develop drills and practice repeatedly.
  3. Protect the Gate. Emphasize Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles when possible in renovations and design; possibly institute visual searches and the use of cameras, and consider increasing lighting to deter crime.
  4. Build Positive Relationships with Students and Fans. Emphasize that attending high school events is a privilege, not a right. However, event workers need to understand that meeting anger with anger does not work, and early intervention plays an important role in de-escalating tension.
  5. Be Aware of Hot Spots. Increase presence at areas known for tension, such as the concession stand at halftime and the parking lot after the game.
  6. Define Spectator Parameters.
  7. Identify All Fans. Require photo IDs from all spectators, both students and parents. Many schools that have instituted this policy have seen a decline in fights and criminal activity.