What happens to the game if a professional athlete dies on the field?
November 1, 2015 6:33 PM   Subscribe

After watching Ricardo Lockette get knocked terrifyingly unconscious in tonight's Seahawks/Cowboys game, and wondering for the eight minutes he was down if he was even alive*, I'm curious to know what the rules governing various high-level sports leagues are about continuing play in the event of the death of an athlete on the field.

Surely they don't expect the players to continue playing? Trying to do a google search returns a million results for how you determine a dead ball, which is not the information I'm after, obviously. I can't believe there aren't rules about this sort of thing, but I can't seem to find them!

*he's badly concussed but appears right now to have motion and sensation in all extremities. Still, it was scary as hell to watch.
posted by KathrynT to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
At a Lions/Bears game in the 70s Chuck Hughes dropped dead on the field. The trainers didn't confirm his condition (deceased) with anyone and they left the teams to finish the game in a silent stadium, only to inform everyone that yes, he actually had died, after the game had ended. Awkward.

I don't know if that set any kind of precedent or if there are any actual rules about it now, but it's happened at least once that I know of.
posted by phunniemee at 6:46 PM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't believe they would ever officially declare someone dead on the field. Even if a player had stopped breathing and their heart had stopped beating, they'd be given CPR and only declared dead later at the hospital.

So, I'd think the game would have to either stop or continue *with a major injury having occurred*, because you're not going to be able to differentiate that from death until a good while later.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 6:46 PM on November 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

On April 20, 2005, former NFL defensive lineman Al Lucas was horrifically injured in an arena football game, about five minutes into the game. He was pronounced dead at the hospital to which he had been taken at 1:28, and the news was relayed to the team with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. It was decided that they would finish out the game, and his team won, 66-35.
posted by hanov3r at 6:48 PM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here is a non-fatal, but very scary and at the time potentially fatal, minor-league hockey accident (deep leg gash) that ended with the game being halted with no result because the players were too shaken up to continue and they couldn't clean the blood off the ice. The game was rescheduled for later in the season.

However, here's a gross -- but not life-threatening -- injury to Kevin Ware during the 2014 NCAA tournament, which left the players VERY shaken, but the game was completed. (Link to DailyFail because it was the first site I found that didn't autoplay the video at me, it is VERY GROSS.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know about official rulings, but the NHL has ended and postponed games after serious medical events where a player had to leave the arena in unknown condition - see for example this article about a player who had a heart attack on the bench (he's fine now, btw). I would assume they would do the same in the case of a death.
posted by anne_severson at 6:57 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

When Phillip Hughes was knocked unconscious by a bouncer - an injury he died from two days later - the match he was playing in was immediately suspended for the day, and on the following day all matches in that series were abandoned.
posted by flabdablet at 7:06 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would really depend on the nature of the death. Someone can be severely injured, but only be really and truly pronounced dead later. Games could continue or be postponed, depending on the situation.

Ray Chapman remains the only MLB player to have died as a result of an on-field injury. But he was only pronounced dead in a hospital several days later. The game continued.

Umpire John McSherry had a sudden cardiac incident on the field, so he was dead for all intents and purposes right there and then. But he was pronounced dead in a hospital very soon after. In this case, the umpires decided to postpone the game. It's also much easier to postpone games in baseball, due to scheduling options.

Hank Gathers received CPR right on the court, in front of his family. The game was called off.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:10 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I'm missing the (sadly) most common on-field sports deaths -- motor racing. There are too many to list.

Dale Earnhardt and Ayrton Senna are perhaps the two most infamous cases. In both situations, the races continued.

On the other hand, the death of Dan Wheldon led to the cancellation of the race, likely because it happened very soon after the start of the race.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:21 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nodar Kumaritashvili was a luger from Georgia who died on a practice run a few hours before the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. No events were cancelled, but a moment of silence was held at the opening ceremony.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 7:26 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This has happened a number of times at pro wrestling events, as when Owen Hart died due to an equipment malfunction and the event proceeded as planned (including a main event match in which a character called "the Undertaker" won).
posted by gerryblog at 8:25 PM on November 1, 2015

Fabrice Muamba went into cardiac arrest during a Premier League soccer match in 2012 and was treated on the pitch for a long time. The match was abandoned.
posted by neilb449 at 11:04 PM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Muamba case cane up in the answers in yesterday's 'You are the ref' quiz in the guardian, the former head of refereeing said it was down to the referee's discretion, taking into account the impact on players of the incident. The exact answer will go up on that link later today.
posted by biffa at 12:36 AM on November 2, 2015

In motor racing, races will sometimes be cancelled in the event of the death of a participant, but it's not that frequent. The 2011 Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix getting cancelled after Marco Simoncelli's death comes to mind as an example of that. In that case, Simoncelli's accident being fairly gruesome and broadcast live on international TV probably had something to do with it too.

At an amateur level, I've participated in motorcycle races where riders have died on the course and the race went on. For something like a long-distance race or an endurance race, the general feeling is, if it was you who'd died, you'd want everybody else to keep going if at all possible.

At the Isle of Man TT, one or two people die pretty much every year; races are abbreviated for safety reasons and course cleanup, but not cancelled as far as I know.
posted by hackwolf at 1:17 AM on November 2, 2015

There have been a significant number of deaths on the field during professional soccer matches - this list includes a lot who didn't die on the field, but of those that did, some of the matches were continued and some abandoned (or at least one was postponed and replayed a short time later). In many cases it seems that the player is taken off the field unconscious and the official pronouncement of death comes late enough that the game is finished (after a lot of CPR and revival efforts in the change rooms, for instance Marc Viven Foe was apparently given CPR for 45 minutes and that game was played to the end), or many of them are listed as being pronounced dead in the ambulance, so the players probably didn't know until after the game.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:01 AM on November 2, 2015

One of the things about the Lockette hit was that the announcers gradually grew audibly nervous that they might be showing someone dying on live national television and eventually cut away to another game before cutting back when Lockette moved his hands. So the national/live broadcast of these events might also be of interest.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:21 AM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

There have been several instances of a soccer player going into cardiac arrest during the game eg. Clive Clarke and Fabrice Muamba who survived, and Miklos Feher who didn't... each time I can think of, the match was called off at the time of the incident and replayed at a later date.
posted by intensitymultiply at 5:37 AM on November 2, 2015

> eventually cut away to another game before cutting back when Lockette moved his hands

Interesting -- here near Seattle they didn't cut away, but stayed with the Seahawks game and showed the players on the field waiting to find out what was going on.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:34 AM on November 2, 2015

The other side of things is what happens if someone dies in the stands. Perhaps the most notorious case is the death of 39 Juventus fans at the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster. This occurred in the stadium one hour before the game, and the local officials decided to go ahead owing to their concerns over what would happen if they were to postpone it.
posted by biffa at 7:54 AM on November 2, 2015

This is for volleyball, which has had 2 players die while involved in competition: Flo Hyman (1986, substituted out before her death and was on the bench at the time) and Vigor Bovolenta (1996, heart attack during play). I started playing in the mid-1990s, but never heard of either of these people until doing research for this comment. (I also stopped officiating in the mid-2000s, but these comments are from the most current rulebooks I could find.)

USAV Indoor Rules Link (PDF)
USAV Casebook Link (PDF)
Volleyball Canada Rules Link (PDF)
USAV Beach Rules Link (PDF)

Now, for the nitpicking of rules.

FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball)/USA Volleyball 2015-2017 Indoor Rules has injury/illness guidelines under section 17: 'Exceptional Game Interruptions'. Put simply, you get 3 minutes max to deal with it, and then they have to be removed. There's also a fair amount of discretion given to the officials and organizers if there is 'unforseen circumstances' which is divided into under 4 hours delay and over 4 hours delay.

Under 4 hours ON THE SAME COURT: "continue normally with same score, players (except expelled or disqualified ones), and positions. The sets already played will keep their scores." Under 4 hours ON A DIFFERENT COURT: "interrupted set is cancelled and replayed with the same team members and the same starting line-ups (except expelled or disqualified ones) and the record of all sanctions will be maintained. The sets already played will keep their scores." Under 4 hours ON A DIFFERENT COURT WITH USAV: "the interrupted set shall continue normally with the same score, players (except spelled or disqualified ones) and positions. The sets already played with keep their scores...For tournament play where a court change is necessitated, the match will be continued from the point of the interruption."

Over 4 hours delay: whole match is replayed.

(Relevant section)

There's also a USAV Casebook, which has pertinent cases: 15.25, 15.26, 15.27, if you're interested in seeing what some interpretations might be.

(Relevant section)

Volleyball Canada has similar regulations, under Section 17 'Exceptional Game Interruptions'. However, they also have a 'Blood Policy for Competition' which is section 29. In that case, there is a one minute 'technical timeout' that is not charged to either team while the player cleans up and covers the wound. There's also some details about cleaning/replacing uniforms that have blood on them. USAV also has a note about dealing with blood, but it is much less detailed.

(Relevant sections: Volleyball Canada, USAV Indoor)

USAV Beach guidelines are also fairly similar, although they are written for DOUBLES MATCHES ONLY. Player is given a maximum of 5 minutes one time in a match. The 1st referee also has to authorize a 'properly accredited medical staff' to attend the player AND allow the player to leave with penalty. If treatment is completed or no treatment can be provided--play resumes. At that time, only the player can judge if they are fit to play. This 5 minutes starts when the medical staff arrives to attend to the player. If there isn't any staff available or if the player wants to use their own medical personnel, it begins when the recovery time was authorized by the referee.

There is an interesting note regarding fitness to play: "In extreme cases, the doctor of the competition can oppose the return of an injured player". I wasn't able to find a casebook for beach rules where this might be discussed in further detail.

For beach delays UNDER 4 HOURS: "match is resumed with the score acquired, regardless of whether it continues on the same court or another court."

For beach delays OVER 4 HOURS: "whole match shall be replayed".

(Relevant section)

TL;DR--For volleyball, if player dies in under 3 minutes, player is removed and match continues. If there is a delay of under 4 hours--match continues. If there is a delay of over 4 hours--match restarts.

(Semi-related: NCAA has a women's volleyball injury report from 2004/05-2008/9 seasons (PDF) that states: "During this five-year period, there were no fatalities from direct mechanisms and one from indirect mechanisms in college volleyball.* During the 28 years that the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR) has collected collegiate volleyball data, there have been no deaths related to direct means (collisions) and two related to indirect mechanisms (exertion). During this same time period, there were no fatalities by either direct or indirect mechanisms in high school volleyball reported by the NCCSIR.)"
posted by sperose at 9:48 AM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

death of 39 Juventus fans at the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster

I think a better example of this kind of thing is the Hillsborough disaster, where the match was stopped and (obviously) not resumed.

I remember when Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch. Very scary and I just learned his heart was stopped for 78 minutes.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:33 PM on November 2, 2015

Damnit, I don't know how I missed it, but in the beach section, it should read: "Player is given a maximum of 5 minutes one time in a match. The 1st referee also has to authorize a 'properly accredited medical staff' to attend the player AND allow the player to leave without penalty."
posted by sperose at 4:56 AM on November 3, 2015

Wow, thanks to everyone! I marked sperose's answer best because it cited actual rules, but it seems like in most sports the answer is "official discretion." On first blush that seems odd to me, but on the other hand, I guess this is a situation where you really wouldn't want to cleave to a legalistic interpretation of rules over what the feeling is on the field of play -- you wouldn't want to say "sorry, but according to the rules we have to play this one out" to a bunch of shaky and distraught players, but you also wouldn't want to say "whoops, our hands are tied, we have to call this off" to a team who clearly wants to rally in the name of their fallen teammate.

as regards the circumstances that inspired the question, Lockette had a multi-hour surgery to "stabilize a ligament in his neck" and will remain in Dallas for a while to recover, sitting out the rest of the season. Apparently his prognosis for a full recovery to normal function is good, but it's unclear yet whether his career can continue.
posted by KathrynT at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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