Have you ever, as a private university administrator felt you wear too many hats, some that fit more comfortably than others? You aren't alone. Even in this age of specialization, more of us, especially in small and medium sized organizations, find our positions demand that we make critical decisions in areas where we need to supplement our own knowledge and wisdom with that gathered from specialists.
While education is, of course, the primary role of private universities, most place high emphasis on the role that athletics-either recreational or competitive-play to build community, maintain physical and mental health of students, faculty and employee populations and to enhance the "brand" of the university.
When faced with decisions regarding construction, renovation, maintenance and operation of indoor or outdoor athletic facilities, there is a wealth of quality information available to decision makers.
In most cases, this information is available locally or regionally in the form of architectural firms who specialize in the construction or renovation of athletic facilities and from technical representatives or dealers who represent the many U.S. manufacturers of quality sports equipment.
This article intends to highlight and prioritize a few key elements of any well thought out athletic facility planning and maintenance process.
Viewed individually, they may seem like "no brainers" but when all are considered jointly, the ultimate decision-whether made by committee or by you individually-can provide some careful prioritizing.
I believe that few, if any of us, would verbalize any willingness to compromise safety in our athletic facility decisions, but often it's the risks that we are unaware of that result in the greatest liability exposure. Sometimes what was deemed safe practice when a facility was first built has become outdated based on current technology. Too often lack of proper maintenance and inspection results in unsafe conditions that are clearly avoidable. Here are a few specific and general tips to help enhance gym facility safety.
• Even if your facility and sports activity is not governed by NCAA or other sports organization rules, consult those rule books as they provide a good starting point for making your facility safe.
• In most gym designs, there are walls, support posts, bleachers or other projections that are in close proximity to aggressive sports activity. Work hard to anticipate the risks of player contact with these surfaces and specify. It's always better to overestimate the probability for contact injury than to underestimate, as the extra padding cost will be small in comparison to overall project costs and the liability costs related to potential injury. Always specify wall padding that meets or exceeds local and national codes including ASTM F2440 and that is certified as flame resistant in accordance with NFPA 701 and the State of California.
• Large recreation facilities are often designed with multiple courts capable of multiple activities or games at the same time. Ceiling mounted divider curtains can provide not only increased player safety but also a more appealing playing environment. A variety of designs taking into consideration facility construction, budgets and other factors are available.
• Actual equipment padding is especially important for certain sports. Volleyball posts, lower sections of basketball backboards, football goal posts and other equipment that players might contact during play are critical to cushion for safe play.
• Generally the less supervision of gymnasium activity, the greater the risk of player or spectator injury. Dramatically more accidents occur in recreational leagues, during open court time and in other minimally supervised play than in intercollegiate official games. This is true in every sport indoors and outdoors. Just because your needs are not for competitive sports doesn't mean safety isn't important.
• An example of sometimes overlooked changes in product design or technology that can affect safety is the change in the common dimensions of glass basketball backboards. When glass backboards were first introduced, they were 48" tall with 12" of backboard extending below the official 10' height of the rim. While current common practice is to specify 42" high backboards which reduces the risk of today's aggressive player contacting the bottom of the board, too often 48" boards are still mistakenly specified on the assumption that 42" boards are just for college level competitive play. Additionally, many backboard manufacturers now offer backboard designs where the stress of dunks or hanging on the rim is isolated from the glass virtually eliminating glass backboard breakage.
• If your current facility has retractable basketball goals, divider curtains, scoreboards or other ceiling or wall hung apparatuses, it is imperative that you not only annually inspect the equipment for loose hardware, worn cables and other deficiencies, but safe practice dictates that if not already installed that you add a retractable safety strap that would activate much like a seat belt if any component failed. These "safety strap" apparatuses are available by a variety of names from all major gym equipment manufacturers and attach to the ceiling structure and to the retractable equipment eliminating the ability for the equipment to fall or pivot into the gym floor or onto the spectator bleachers.
• Transport, setup and storage of equipment within the facility can create risks for staff and players. Select equipment that is easy to transport. Examples include lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber volleyball posts and well-designed transport carts for mats or other movable apparatus. Failure to design appropriate storage for portable basketball systems, volleyball systems, portable bleachers, gymnasium equipment and similar equipment often results in the equipment being left along the walls or in an area where a player or spectator could be in contact and be injured.
• While signage alone will not automatically result in appropriate player and fan behavior, do not under estimate the value of well thought out "rules of conduct" and other signage in the reduction of actual safety risks and in your institution's ability to defend itself in court if the need arises.
• When it comes to outdoor field sports, select soccer, field hockey or other goals that are designed and built by manufacturers whose job it is to insure safety. Using locally fabricated equipment while sometimes cheaper is a recipe for injury caused by sharp edges, tipover and other design deficiencies.
• While outdoor basketball courts have no governing equipment specifications, you should always assume that they will attract aggressive unsupervised play. Outdoor goals are available with setbacks (from post to face of backboard) from 3' to 8'. Greater setbacks are always safer.
Green, sustainable, recyclable or whatever words you choose to describe the well acceptable and accelerating trend toward making better choices with our planet's resources, all have applications in the gym and athletic facility's world.
As in virtually all product categories across the full spectrum of our economy, the best source of sustainability lies in the decision makers' ability to specify not only products that satisfy the initial requirements of the project but that are also designed and built for extended life. No product is less sustainable than one whose service life is short. That being said, there are some gym and athletic facility products that also meet the more traditional sustainable or green definition.
Consult your sports flooring or playing surface expert to explore recycle materials and wood flooring with reduced newly harvested wood content. Some bleachers, benches and locker room lockers are available with varying degrees of recycled content.
Ask yourself a simple question. Is the functionality of your facility your only concern, or is the image that it portrays to your students, the faculty and staff, your community and your peers an important aspect of the decisions you make? In most cases, at least a portion of the rationale for building or upgrading a sports facility is to create a sense of belonging and pride in your institution whether through strong intercollegiate sports competition or through emphasis on the importance of health and wellness of your student body.
Today more than ever, schools and universities of all sizes and types are using the athletic facilities as an advertising platform to show the world their institution, pride of school colors, the school mascot and a wide range of school activities.
Electronic (LED) signage with message boards and full color graphic capabilities are common for the inside and outside of college sports facilities. Scoring tables, scoreboards, banners, special floor art and other options should be carefully considered, not as an afterthought, but as an important component in the initial planning of any project. Additionally, outdoor site furnishings such as benches and recycling and trash receptacles can be customized with attractive logos.
In your role as university administrator, you make decisions every day that affect the vitality and success of your institution. Whether or not you are experienced in the specifics of athletic facility decision making, you are not alone. In every area of the US, there are competent experts to help you design, build and maintain a facility that you will be proud of for years to come.
is co-founder and CEO of Bison Inc. headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska. For over 30 years, Bison and its divisions have provided innovative, safe and sustainable products to schools, park districts, rec centers and private clubs for indoor and outdoor sports and recreation activities. Visit www.bisoninc.com.