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15 years later

Terrorist attacks that changed America also affected intercollegiate athletics policy

This is an updated version of a 2006 piece written by Greg Johnson for NCAA.org.

Few moments in time stand out as universally as those that occurred in the early-morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001.

Fifteen years ago, Americans witnessed the unthinkable as terrorists turned four passenger airline jets into missiles that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a rural Pennsylvania field, forever making Sept. 11, 2001, an infamous date in U.S. history.

Just as the generation that experienced the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 could recite where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, so, too, did 9/11 leave an indelible impression on people’s memories. On that day, life as Americans knew it changed.

The transformations came in many forms — and though the administration of intercollegiate athletics wasn’t high on the priority list in matters related to national security, the events of 9/11 nonetheless changed college sports, too.

Some of the 9/11-induced changes in athletics administration and game management have come and gone, but others remain in place today, mostly in security measures, emergency-response planning, operations-management control and vulnerability assessments.

Millions of spectators attend intercollegiate sports events every year, and athletics administrators have a responsibility to create a safe environment after 9/11. While another terrorist attack of that scope may never occur again, administrators know they must develop plans to guard against catastrophic events, whether they be acts of aggression, weather disasters or medical emergencies.

In the immediate years following the attacks, American Specialty Insurance & Risk Services Inc. worked closely with NCAA staff to develop best practices in risk management for athletics events.

The company helped develop the Excellence Management Self-Audit Program, a survey that collected information from institutions in all three NCAA divisions. The goal of the project was to help institutions and conferences better understand the steps necessary to be as risk-averse as possible.

Within the first five years after 9/11, only 13 percent of conferences surveyed had practiced their emergency-response plans for events with a projected attendance of 500 or fewer.

The company advised that no matter the magnitude of the game or the size of the crowd, it’s worth inviting local law enforcement officials, conference personnel and campus police to talk about contingency plans.

The 2006 survey showed a bit more diligence with larger events. For games with projected attendance of 5,000 or more, 50 percent of the conferences had allowed their local emergency providers to review emergency-response plans.

In the years that followed, athletics administrators worked to address seven core areas:

  • Plans to handle a medical emergency.
  • Security.
  • Operating-management controls, such as securing certificate of insurance from vendors.
  • Training event personnel and volunteers on what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Incident-investigation procedures
  • Emergency-response plans.
  • Pre- and post-event inspections.

Lou Marciani, the director of the Hattiesburg, Mississippi-based Center for Spectator Sports Security Management, is a former athletics administrator who helped launch the organization in 2004 after receiving a $600,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

Some of the best practices to avoid vulnerability at intercollegiate stadiums, Marciani said, include monthly safety meetings, monitoring tailgate areas, picture identification for game-day staff, written protocols in the event of severe weather, written and publicized evacuation plans and emergency-response routes painted on the curbs near the sports venue.

"If I’m an athletics director today, my job is different than it was before 9/11," said Marciani. "You are cognizant, and you are contemplating the ‘what ifs.’ You have to think like that."

Marciani believes the only way to be equipped for any disaster is through training, research and outreach.

"We never would have been in this business if it wasn’t for 9/11," Marciani said. "Curriculums wouldn’t have been developed in this field, either. The bottom line is we’ve improved ourselves overall to make events more secure. We’re going in the right direction."

Being prepared

The University of Oklahoma experienced an emergency-response incident during an Oct. 1, 2005, football game against Kansas State University. An engineering student at Oklahoma committed suicide by blowing himself up within 200 yards of Memorial Stadium, where more than 84,000 fans were preparing for halftime.

No one knows for sure if the student planned a suicide attack or if he purposely detonated the explosive exactly where it went off on the South Oval of campus. Regardless of what the intentions were, the university had a plan in the event of any type of emergency involving crowd control.

"All of our preparation served us well," said Oklahoma Athletics Director Joe Castiglione. "All of our event-management people did a wonderful job. Communication was clear as that situation developed."

The stadium was locked down since the explosion was so near the stadium, and no one was allowed to leave until local, state and federal law enforcement agencies secured the area.

Officials determined that it was an isolated event, and the stadium wasn’t evacuated.

"Before the 2005 football season started, we had Homeland Security and other federal agencies involved in training our staff," said Castiglione, who estimated that security costs at his institution more than doubled in the five years after 9/11. "We invited other event managers from other institutions in the state to take part in our exercise."

Besides increased personnel, Oklahoma has also installed surveillance cameras on the exterior of its stadium. Officials at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, have used a grant from Homeland Security to install similar devices.

Castiglione has even invited media to report on the new security measures and the steps the institution is taking to ensure the safety of those who attend Sooner sporting events.

In addition, because some of those plans had to be implemented during the suicide bombing incident, campus and athletics administrators have been able to assess where they were successful and what needs to be enhanced.

National policies

While many institutions have developed their own action plans, NCAA committees also have dealt with the administrative fallout from 9/11.

One of those groups — then-called the Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet — felt the effects firsthand. Cabinet members had begun their fall meeting in Philadelphia on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and were in the process of reviewing the operating procedures of every sport committee when the tragic news broke.

While the events of 9/11 may have cut the cabinet meeting short, they expedited already-contemplated changes in the seeding and bracketing of national tournaments.

The cabinet agreed that in sports other than basketball, sports committees would be allowed to seed a maximum of 25 percent of the field in most cases. The group also stipulated that Division I championships be bracketed regionally to reduce the number of flights. The policy changes resulted in a $6 million savings.

A few years later, though, the cabinet returned to the Division I philosophy of selecting the best at-large teams into each championship field regardless of conference affiliation or region after automatic qualifiers have been determined. However, bracketing geographically in the preliminary rounds to help reduce travel costs is still prevalent today.

In the first five years after the tragedy, travel arrangements to NCAA championships also changed.

For the 2001-02 academic year, mileage to gain reimbursement for ground transportation was increased from 300 to 400 miles in Division I and to 500 miles for Divisions II and III. But the limit returned to 300 the following year. For the 2006-07 academic year, the limit was 350. Today, it’s 400 for all Division I sports except basketball. For Division I men’s and women’s basketball and the NIT, it’s 350. For Division II, it’s 600 for team sports and 500 for individual sports, and it’s 500 for Division III.

Security concerns regarding air travel nosed upward when a plot was uncovered in England in August 2006 where terrorists were planning to detonate explosives on trans-Atlantic flights to the United States. Liquid compounds were to be used to make the bombs.

Financial woes in the airline industry after 9/11 also affected NCAA travel. Airlines consolidated their flights, resulting in fewer seats for group travel.

"It was more difficult getting teams to championships in the first five years after Sept. 11," said NCAA Director of Finance Juanita Sheely. "More and more flights were scheduled on regional jets. Flights were also fuller. Our costs went up. It used to be relatively simple to find a flight that would accommodate a 22-person volleyball travel squad selected three days before the championship, but it became rare to find 22 seats together on one plane."

While the goal is to provide as comfortable a journey as possible, many times the travel parties had to accept what was available, which in many cases meant split squads, middle seats and connecting flights.

Another important aspect of travel in the years after 9/11 was the ability to find travelers wherever they are. In 2003, Short’s Travel became the travel agency for the NCAA partly because it has the ability to provide that service.

While the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are difficult to forget, they also have spurred a heightened sense of awareness as athletics administrators manage game-day operations. And while policies may not be as restrictive as they were right after the attacks, most institutions and conferences have plans at the ready that also weren’t available before.

And at most places, the heightened security has been implemented seamlessly — to the benefit of participants and spectators alike..