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The Importance of Legal Aspects for New Professionals in Recreational Sports:
A Perspective of Practicing Professionals
(February 2001)

Sarah J. Young

Contact: Dr. Sarah J. Young
Leisure Studies Program
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway, Box 453035
Las Vegas, NV 89154-3035
(702) 895-3932
FAX: (702) 895-4870


Since there has been a documented increase in litigation related to recreational sports programs in the United States over the past couple of decades, what should students preparing for careers in recreational sports be learning in regard to legal aspects? This question was posed to administrators in both municipal recreation and campus recreational sports settings. Eight areas of legal study were defined while respondents were asked to rate the importance of each legal area for both undergraduate and graduate recreational sport curriculums. Risk management was the legal area that was perceived by the recreation administrators in this study as most important for both levels of curricula in which to have knowledge, experience and training. Additionally, the areas of administrative law, tort law and contract law were viewed as applicable and important to the delivery of recreational sport programs.

Keywords: legal aspects, recreational sports, risk management, curriculum

As the sports coordinator for the local municipal parks and recreation department, you are the tournament director for a three-day softball tournament to be held at your city's softball complex. During the course of one of the tournament games, an individual playing in the outfield runs into the outfield fence while chasing down a fly ball. The outfielder sustains serious injury to his face and head as the result of hitting the crossbar on the outfield fence. While adequate emergency care was administered to the injured player at the time of the accident, some time later you and your department are named in a lawsuit stemming from the situation. The complaint filed by the injured participant claims that the fences at your sports complex did not comply with the height regulations deemed safe by industry standards. Upon checking the industry standards and the height of the fences at your ballpark, you find that your fences are shorter than the standard height, creating a hazardous condition.

What would you do if this hypothetical situation was a reality for your recreational sports program? While you may be thinking that this situation could not, or would not happen to you, the reality of the situation is that this type of scenario does occur and has occurred in recreational sports programs in the United States. (The hypothetical scenario is based upon actual case law.) Perhaps a more pertinent question related to this scenario might be what could have been done to prevent the situation from occurring? Engaging in appropriate risk management techniques including risk reviews, facility inspections and the identification and prioritization of hazards may have helped to reduce the liability that one might be facing in the scenario presented above. However, the answer to the prevention question also leads to yet another question: What do I need to know in regard to legal liability, the law and risk management to reduce the likelihood of being involved in litigation?

Today's society has evolved into what Lieberman (1981) called "a law-drenched age" (p. xi). He continued by stating that litigation "is gaining public favor as the legitimate and most effective means of seeking and winning one's just desserts" (p. xi). The fear of being sued is now a constant and common threat in the United States, whereas a number of years ago many of the cases heard in today's courts would have been considered minor, and suing would not have been considered an option. However, as Hronek and Spengler (1997) concluded, our society has tended, as a result of the increase of litigation, to be reluctant "to accept the normal dynamics of living in a world of bumps and mishaps without some compensation" (p. xii). Over the course of the past 30 years, a significant increase in the amount of litigation in recreational sports has also been noted. Hronek and Spengler concurred by stating "suits related to recreation and sport have increased steadily for three decades and are expected to continue to increase in the future" (p. 6). This threat of litigation has created another dimension in managing risk for those individuals responsible for providing recreational sport programs. Litigation has permeated the administration of recreational sports programs to the degree that risk management and a basic knowledge of legal aspects have become an essential part of the professional preparation for today's recreational sport managers (Rankin, 1991). Recreational sport managers must not only develop specific training procedures for their staff in order to uphold the standard of care now mandated by the courts and expected by their participants, but they must also hire new professionals who have a fundamental sense of legal aspects and risk management.

Focusing specifically upon new professionals entering the recreational sports field, a legitimate inquiry is to ask what should they know about liability and risk management in order to provide safe programs? What is the fundamental foundation of knowledge in regard to legal liability, the law and risk management that will assist new professionals in avoiding litigation? What should students preparing for careers in recreational sports be learning in their recreation curriculums in regard to legal aspects? That inquiry captured the essence of this particular study. Recreation professionals experienced in providing sport programs in municipal settings along with administrators providing recreational sport programs in collegiate settings were asked what they felt was essential for new professionals entering the field to know about legal aspects, liability and the law. By obtaining this information from practitioners in the field, academicians would be better able to make necessary adjustments to legal aspects courses in recreation curricula. As a result the students graduating from these curricula would be better equipped and trained in the legal aspects of providing recreational sports programs.


The subjects selected for this study were professionals with experience in administering recreational sports programs both in municipal and educational settings. Based upon their experience in providing recreational sport programs, these two groups of professionals were the best population from which to gather input on fundamental legal knowledge needed by new professionals entering this field. A 1999-2000 National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) list of administrators (n=1,011) and the 2000 National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) directory of campus recreational sports programs (n=1,064) were used as the sampling frames for identifying recreation professionals familiar with the delivery of sport programs. Simple random sampling was the method used to select subjects to participate in the survey. The sample of NRPA directors was 320 while the sample size of NIRSA directors was 299 for a total sample of 619 subjects. These sample sizes were based upon recommended samples for finite sized populations by Krejcie and Morgan (in Riddick & Russell, 1999). The sampling error for both samples was +5%.

The instrument used for the collection of data was a four-page questionnaire consisting of two sections. The first section consisted of eight legal areas of study identified by Pittman (1991) in his study of content areas relating to legal issues in sport that should be taught in an undergraduate physical education curriculum. Table 1 shows each of the legal areas along with a brief description of each area. The respondents were asked to indicate the level of importance for the eight different areas of law: administrative, constitutional, contract, judicial system, legal research, products liability, risk management, and tort law. Each of these legal areas were defined and accompanied by a brief description of the course content encompassing the topics of these areas of law. The respondents were asked to indicate the importance of each legal area for both an undergraduate and graduate level curriculum in recreation, sports and leisure studies. The level of importance for each curricula was measured on a five-point Likert scale (1= No Importance; 5= Extreme Importance). The second section of the questionnaire consisted of demographic questions regarding the type of agency, the size of the community or educational institution the professional served, the number of years experience in recreation, and the respondents' highest level of academic achievement.
Table 1
Legal Topics and Descriptions

Legal Area Description
Administrative Law The study of governmental regulation by administrative agencies and the nature and scope of judicial review exercised by the courts over such agencies.
Constitutional Law The study of the judicial legal function as it relates to the powers of the federal government and the powers delegated to the states by the federal government.
Contract Law  The study of contract formation, termination, avoidance, performance, breach of performance, remedies for breach and dispute resolution.
Judicial System  The study of the structure and relationships of the federal, state, and local court systems, how laws are made, and the trial system.
Legal Research The study of how to located and look up case law while using a variety of resources (i.e., annotated law reports, law reviews, legal dictionaries and encyclopedias, etc.) in researching legal topics.
Products Liability The study of negligence, breach of warranty and strict liability in tort as it relates to recreational sport equipment.
Risk Management The study of risk identification, evaluation, treatment and implementation with the goal of learning to efficiently manage the organization by reducing the potential for loss to property, clients, employees and the public.
Tort Law  The study of a wrongful act resulting in an injury, loss or damage for which the injured party can bring civil action. This area includes a study of negligence and defenses to negligence.

The Salant and Dillman (1994) method of gathering data was implemented in this study. In the spring of 2000, each administrator was sent a letter explaining the study along with the questionnaire. A follow-up post card was mailed to all non-respondents after 10 days. A second letter was mailed to all non-respondents after three weeks. Of the 619 subjects receiving the mailing, 286 respondents returned the completed questionnaire for a response rate of 47%.


Demographic information was gathered from the 286 recreation administrators who completed the questionnaire. The group consisted of 207 men (72%) and 79 women (28%). Additionally, the group of recreation professionals was composed of 154 (54%) administrators who were members of NRPA and 132 (46%) administrators who were members of NIRSA. Of the NRPA administrators, 100% represented recreation and leisure service agencies in public settings across all 50 states. Of the NIRSA administrators, 90 (68%) worked on the campus of public institutions while 42 (32%) provided recreational sports programs on private campuses. The administrators were also asked to indicate the size of either their community or the campus to which their agency provided services. Of those agencies providing municipal leisure services, 81% (n=124) indicated their community size was a population of less than 200,000 with over 51% (n=79) indicating that their community population was less than 50,000 people. Of those agencies providing recreational sports on college campuses, 112 (87%) administrators indicated the enrollment on their campus was less than 25,000 students. The most frequently indicated enrollment size of those responding ranged between 10,000 to 15,000 students.

The respondents were also asked to indicate their position title. From the entire group of respondents, over 80% (n=229) indicated their title was director of their agency's operations. The average number of years in their current positions for the entire group was 11 years, while the average number of years with their current organization was 13.5 years. The respondents were also asked to indicate the number of years of full-time experience they had gained in the field of recreation, sport and leisure services. Seventy-six percent (n=220) indicated they had 15 or more years of experience with over 34% (n=98) of the group indicating 25 or more years of full-time experience in the field. Finally, the group was asked to indicate their highest level of academic achievement. Over 65% (n=187) of the respondents indicated a masters degree was the highest level of academia achieved. Twenty-five percent (n=70) indicated a bachelors degree was their highest academic achievement. The remaining respondents indicated a variety of degrees, including Ph. D., MBA, and J.D., as their highest level of academic achievement.

In identifying the most important legal aspect for undergraduate recreational sport majors in which to have knowledge, risk management received the highest mean score (M=4.29, SD=0.89). Furthermore, over 50% of the 286 administrators responding to this question indicated that study in the area of risk management was extremely important. The legal aspect receiving the lowest mean score for the undergraduate level was legal research (M=2.01, SD=0.97). Over 70% (n=205) of the respondents indicated that this area of law was of little or no importance to undergraduate students pursuing careers in recreation, sport and leisure services. Table 2 shows the mean scores for the undergraduate level in each of the legal areas.
Table 2
Importance of Legal Topics for Undergraduates

Legal Area Mean SD Rating
Risk Management 4.29 0.89 1
Administrative Law 3.49 0.97 2
Tort Law 3.41 1.12 3
Contract Law 3.31 0.99 4
Products Liability 3.23 1.08 5
Constitutional Law 2.80 0.99 6
Judicial System 2.37 0.92 7
Legal Research 2.01 0.97 8
At the graduate level, the most important area was again risk management (M=4.63, SD=0.97). The emphasis for graduate-level students gaining knowledge in this area was much greater than at the undergraduate level not only because of the higher mean score but because over 70% (n=203) of the administrators indicated that knowledge in risk management was extremely important. The legal area receiving the lowest importance score at the graduate level was legal research (M=2.54, SD=1.08). The similarities in ratings based on the mean importance scores for the undergraduate and graduate levels for all eight legal topics were nearly identical. The one difference at the graduate level was the importance of knowledge in the area of contract law. Contract law was rated higher than Tort law at the graduate level while at the undergraduate level Tort law was deemed more important than Contract law. Table 3 shows the mean scores for the graduate level in each of the legal areas.
Table 3
Importance of Legal Topics for Graduate Level
Legal Area Mean SD Rating
Risk Management 4.63 0.73 1
Administrative Law 4.18 0.91 2
Contract Law 4.04 0.97 3
Tort Law 3.93 1.05 4
Products Liability 3.83 1.00 5
Constitutional Law 3.39 1.00 6
Judicial System 2.81 1.02 7
Legal Research 2.54 1.08 8

<>The mean importance scores were higher at the graduate level for all eight areas of law. In an attempt to discover if differences existed between the undergraduate and graduate levels for each area of law, t-tests were run. The results revealed significant differences at an alpha level of .05 between the two curriculum levels for each of the eight legal areas. Another area where differences in the mean scores occurred was by professional group at each of the two curricular levels. T-tests were run for each of the areas of law based on the scores of professionals from the NIRSA and NRPA groups. At the undergraduate level differences in the mean scores ( = .05) were discovered between the groups of professionals in the areas of Contract law, Products Liability and Tort law. At the graduate level, differences between the two groups were found in the areas of Administrative law, Contract law, Products Liability, and Tort law. Table 4 shows a complete summary of significant differences at both curricular levels.
Table 4

t- Test Results of Professional Groups at Curricular Levels
Legal Area Curricular Level t Score Significance
Contract Law Undergraduate 3.062 .002**
Products Liability Undergraduate -4.045 .001**
Tort Law Undergraduate -2.256 .025*
Administrative Law Graduate 2.875 .004**
Contract Law Graduate 4.217 .001**
Products Liability Graduate -4.520 .001**
Tort Law Graduate -2.111 .036*

*p < .05 **p < .01  

Finally, respondents were asked how knowledgeable of legal and risk management issues did they feel new recreational sports professionals needed to be as they entered their first full-time position. This question was asked for new professionals entering with an undergraduate degree and for those entering with a graduate degree. The level of knowledge was measured on a five-point Likert scale with 1 indicating no knowledge and 5 indicating extremely knowledgeable. The mean score at the undergraduate level was 2.42 (SD=.96) indicating a slightly below average knowledge level. The mean score at the graduate level was 3.25 (SD=1.07) indicating that a slightly more than average level of knowledge was expected. When a comparison of the means was conducted, a t-test indicated a significant difference ( = .05) between the expectations of the knowledge level of the new professional emerging from an undergraduate curriculum compared to a graduate curriculum.


In reflecting on the findings of the study, it is natural to first to focus upon the differences between the ratings of the two groups in the areas of products liability, contract and tort law. Significant differences were found between the professionals representing the campus recreation setting (NIRSA) and the professionals representing the municipal setting (NRPA) on both curricular levels. The conclusion, therefore, that one tends to draw is that there exists some difference in the setting of these recreational sport agencies which caused the professionals to rate these areas of law differently. In terms of contract law, those professionals from the municipal setting rated this area as more important at both the graduate and undergraduate levels than did those professionals from the campus recreational sports setting. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that a municipal setting may provide more opportunities for its professionals to deal with the public in contract situations such as through rental of sports facilities, use of independent contracts with sports officials, and through facility lease agreements. New recreation professionals entering the municipal setting may be more likely to encounter situations and interaction with the public that call for more of an emphasis upon a fundamental knowledge of contract law than those professionals entering campus recreation settings.

Another difference between the two groups was in the areas of products liability and tort law. The professionals from the campus recreational sport setting rated both of these areas of law as more important for new professionals to have knowledge of than the administrators from the municipal setting. At first, there does not appear to be a viable reason for a difference in the groups' ratings of these areas of law which for the most part deal with negligence and personal injury. Certainly, there is evidence of personal injury resulting from negligence in recreational sports programs in both types of settings, and consequently, a need for new professionals in these settings to have sufficient knowledge in tort law and products liability. In a more critical look at these differences, however, a possible explanation could be the target market of the campus recreational sport setting and this market's attitude toward risk. The target market of the campus recreational sports setting is college students. The typical profile of a campus recreational sport consumer is a male between the ages of 18-22 years participating in an average of three team sports per year (Holford & Gresh, 1993; Lumpkin & Halstead, 1995; Gaskins, 1996). In a study of campus recreational sport participants' perceptions of assumption of risk forms, Holford and Gresh found that over 50% of the respondents reported they did not read the forms before signing. Additionally, close to 50% of the respondents admitted signing the names of their teammates, or allowing their signature to be forged on the assumption of risk forms. The primary reasons for this behavior were that the act of signing was a nuisance along with the perception that the completed paperwork was not that important. The findings of this study revealed some interesting insight into the attitudes of college-aged participants towards risk. Because an apathetic attitude by participants in the campus recreational sport setting is likely to exist, administrators in this setting may place a higher importance on knowledge for their staff in recognizing negligence and preventing it.

The final area of law in which significant differences between the two groups were identified was the area of administrative law. This difference, while only at the graduate level, may also be attributed to the type of setting in which the agencies are located. Because this area of law deals primarily with governmental regulation by administrative agencies and 100% of the administrators from the municipal setting represented public agencies, it is not much of a surprise that this area of law did receive a higher mean importance score from this group. While two-thirds of the administrators in campus recreational sports did represent public institutions, based upon the results of this study, there was a greater perception of importance in administrative law for new professionals entering a public municipal recreation setting.

It is also noteworthy to point out the differences in expectations for individuals emerging from the two levels of curricula. In response to the questions regarding the level of knowledge in legal aspects that new professionals should have, the respondents indicated that those individuals emerging from a graduate curriculum should be more knowledgeable of legal aspects than individuals emerging from an undergraduate curriculum. It is not too much of a surprise that the expectations for those new professionals in recreation with a masters degree were greater than those with a bachelors degree. This finding was supported by Parkhouse (1987) in her study of sport management curricula design that recommended graduate level courses be "more advanced than undergraduate offerings of this nature" (p. 113). Additionally, a curricular model for sport management by Kelley, Beitel, DeSensi and Blanton (1994) recommended that undergraduate course work be presented at the introductory and intermediate levels while graduate course work be presented at an advanced level. While both of these recommendations were made for sport management curricula in general, the same principles apply to the legal aspects area of study within the curriculum. Furthermore, because of the type of positions the new professional from the two different levels of curricula are pursuing, the expectations for legal knowledge make a great deal of sense. New professionals emerging from an undergraduate recreational sports management curriculum are best equipped for employment at entry-level positions (Kelley, et al.). A basic knowledge of the law, liability, and risk management is an absolute necessity for the new professional at this level. However, a more in-depth study as well as a greater understanding of more legal issues and topics is appropriate for new professionals emerging from a graduate recreational sports management curriculum as these individuals are more likely to find themselves employed at managerial or entry-level administrative positions (Kelley, et al.; Ross, Jamieson, & Young, 1999).

The legal area in which there was no difference between the two groups of respondents or curricular levels was risk management. A strong sense of agreement by all professionals experienced in providing recreational sports programs, regardless of the setting, was evident from the response to the importance of this legal area. van der Smissen (1997) offered an explanation for this strong sense of agreement by stating, "the liability situation in the United States has sensitized professionals as to the need to incorporate risk management into both operations and education" (p. 6). The literature on risk management in recreational sports supported the finding of this study that risk management is of utmost importance for new professionals entering the field. In a study of key liability and risk management trends impacting the delivery of recreational sports (Young, 1998) it was revealed that professional preparation and opportunities for continuing education in liability issues and risk management strategies will be the expectation for those individuals seeking positions in recreational sport programming and administration. Additionally, there is agreement in the literature (Cooper, 1997; Fawcett, 1998; Miller, 1998; Mulrooney & Green, 1997) regarding recreational sports in a wide variety of settings that implementation of a risk management plan displays a proactive attitude on the part of the recreational sports program. Furthermore, Fried (1994) believed that it was of utmost importance for the recreational sports professional to not only have the knowledge to develop a risk management plan, but to implement it as well in order to "ensure that an environment exists in which the risk of injury and possibly being named in a negligence lawsuit is minimized" (p. 33).


It is true that legal issues and resulting law suits related to recreational sports have increased in the United States over the past couple of decades. This fact has served as a catalyst for professionals in recreation, sport and leisure services to focus specifically upon the management of risk in the programs they provide. Risk management is viewed as the key to reducing liability in recreational sports programs. For new professionals entering the field, adequate education and training in risk management is essential.

While there are a number of areas of law that are related to the management and provision of recreational sports programs, professional practitioners in this study identified risk management as the area most important for new professional in which to have studied and gained knowledge at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Additionally, the areas of Administrative law, Tort law and Contract law were viewed as applicable and important to the delivery of recreational sport programs. Based upon this information, colleges and universities providing curricula in recreation, sport and leisure studies should focus upon these legal aspects in the professional preparation of students aspiring to pursue careers in the field. Furthermore, it is through collaborative efforts between academicians and practitioners that the best possible instruction and professional preparation of new professionals can take place.


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