Football is a dangerous game — and not just for the players.
Fans, media members, coaches and officials are all at risk as they observe the action, either from the field or from the sidelines.
That fact was driven home when KPNX (Ch. 12) photographer Jay McSpadden was knocked to the turf during a tackle along the sidelines at Friday's Seton Catholic-Queen Creek game at Queen Creek High School. McSpadden was air-lifted to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn for emergency brain surgery that night.
Ch. 12 officials said McSpadden, a 25-year veteran, developed a blood clot between his cranium and his brain, necessitating the surgery.
Ch. 12 news director Mark Casey said Monday that the surgery went well and McSpadden, who is listed in stable condition, had already regained some motor skills in his arms and hands. He was taken off a ventilator Sunday afternoon. He has also spoken with family members but remains in the hospital's intensive care unit while doctors continue to monitor his recovery.
“They haven't told us when he'll be out or if he will recover fully," Casey said. “They've only assured us that everything that's happening is normal for someone who's been through this sort of thing." Arizona Interscholastic Association commissioner of officials, Gary Whelchel, said the incident highlights the need for a buffer zone between the action and those covering it or watching it from the sidelines.
Whelchel said he has made recommendations in the past to schools that they designate, with a chalk line, a 6-foot belt between the sidelines and media members and fans.
“Some schools have drawn it, some have not," said Whelchel, who attended the game Friday at Queen Creek. “If we had that belt it would at least reduce the possibility of this happening." The National Federation of State High School Associations does not have a written or stated policy about sideline personnel. Neither does the AIA. Whelchel said it is up to the schools to police their own sidelines unless the NFSHSA or AIA create a rule.
The NFL and the NCAA have rules limiting the number of personnel allowed in the designated team area between the 30 yard lines. Both also have a belt of at least six feet within which media members and other personnel are not allowed.
ASU assistant athletics director for media relations, Mark Brand, said the Sun Devils’ buffer is much wider at 15 feet. Still, most members of the football community and the media understand that there is a risk when standing on the sidelines.
“It's dangerous, but you can't keep the press out," Queen Creek athletic director Tot Workman said. “They've got a right to be there."
AIA executive director Harold Slemmer agreed.
“I think there is always going to be a little bit of a hazard to the profession and sometimes unfortunate things will happen," he said.
Because of that hazard the NFL requires media members to sign a waiver when they pick up their credentials, absolving the league of liability. The back of NCAA credentials reads: “The bearer of this credential and his or her employer assumes all risks and liabilities during its use." High schools do not issue such statements, but Mesa Public Schools director of employee benefits Jim Loeb said it is unlikely schools could be held liable for injuries incurred on the sidelines.
“Theoretically we may be liable if we did something that contributed to an accident," said Loeb, who handles some issues of liability for the district. “But there's an assumption of risk when you place yourself in a known risk and there is definitely a known risk when football players are running up and down the field and some run out of bounds."
Dobson High principal Steve Green said his school has tried to cut back on the amount of people watching games from the sidelines by issuing field passes only to those who need to be there. But schools' policing efforts are often overwhelmed by the small amount of security in attendance compared to the volume of people standing on the sidelines.
“There's only so much you can do if people aren't going to listen to the rules," said Workman, adding that McSpadden appeared to have been standing within the appropriate area for media.
“I don't know that there's anything else we can do other than move people back even farther."
Sideline injuries are not discerning in their victims and they happen at every level of the game.
Earlier this year an official's assistant was slammed to the track just outside the football field at Chaparral and was knocked unconscious.
Green Bay Packers assistant Gil Haskell suffered a fractured skull when Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson blocked flanker Robert Brooks out of bounds and into Haskell, whose head struck the artificial surface during the 1996 NFC championship game at Texas Stadium.
“As coaches we're around the players all week so we're a lot more conscious of the flying bodies. But there's always a danger," Seton Catholic coach Pete Wahlheim said.
Wahlheim said his entire team felt awful after McSpadden was injured Friday.
“It really means a lot to the kids to get coverage. It's important to them," he said. “It's just really unfortunate that this kind of thing happened."