September 22, 2021

Special Event Risks: It’s Called “Bedlam” for a Reason

Many moons ago, an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, notable sports victories were celebrated by students by “rolling the Quad.” Dorms would empty as undergrads sprinted toward the tree-lined Quadrangle, armed with rolls of toilet paper. Crowds would then proceed to “TP” – “toilet paper” the branches of the stately magnolia trees. (Sometimes they streaked, but that’s another story.) Athletic victories for the Demon Deacons were rare in those days, so this quaint custom was an irregular event.

Celebrating college sports victories has, in the words of TV chef Emeril, “kicked up a notch.”

At the close of the December 3rd football game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, delirious celebrating OSU fans swarmed the field. The in-state rivalry is an annual match-up known as “Bedlam.” That label is well-earned.

The game had national college football implications, but the after-game stampede also has risk management implications. About a dozen people were injured in the process. Some were trampled. Others jumped down a 15-foot drop to get to the field.

Rushing the field (or, in the case of basketball) the court has become a bit of a tradition in college sports after a signature or milestone victory. That milestone may become a liability and risk millstone, however, for the college or university that allows it to happen.

Doubtlessly there will be the wave of inevitable lawsuits against Oklahoma State University, alleging negligence in security and crowd control. Plaintiffs may argue that such a swarm was reasonably foreseeable and that the University could/should have taken more steps to prevent this. The University will try to show that it took reasonable precautions. It may argue that there is virtually nothing that a college can do to absolutely thwart of determination of thousands of students to rush the field.

This episode has a number of risk management implications, not just for colleges but for all those who organize and manage special events. Those events can be football games, rock concerts or Black Friday retail specials. Implications include:

• What are reasonable precautions for colleges and universities to take in preparation for such eventualities?

• Is such a fan stampede reasonably forseeable by the school

• What responsibility do the fans play in assuming risk of injury when they swarm the field or take a leap off the stands?

The rush to the field may only be surpassed by the rush to the courthouse.

Have you ever attended a sporting event or concert that got out of hand or made you feel at risk of harm? Do you think the responsibility lies with the organizer or with the participants?

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