Child Safety in Sports
By Shwethambara Mani and Shibumi Raje
Children and sport speak the universal language of fun, friendship, discipline and achievement. Sport significantly contributes to a child’s mental, social and physical skills by building tolerance, discipline, focus and respect. While childhood is often a precious period for building potential, a child’s body and mind may not have adequate stamina to cope with all the pressures and rigours of competitive sport, especially as concerns about physical injuries in competitive sport are far-reaching. The young athlete is not immune from risks of injury or death associated with competitive performance of the sport itself. Further, there are concerns arising from the treatment of child athletes by over competitive coaches, agents, trainers, parents and other athletes. To draw a fine balance between training and safety, sporting associations for different competitive sports, in different countries have their own standards and norms to keep sport a safe place for children. Further, with sport being recognized as a valuable tool for achieving international goals in the United Nations Millennium Summit, safety in sport for children has received its platform within the international community. First, this article briefly details the efforts made by the international community as a whole and the European Union in particular to address the issue of child safety in sports. The article then looks at the specific standards set for children for different competitive sports by relevant sporting authorities in Australia, United Kingdom and India.
Sport has been adopted by many nations and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (“UNICEF”) as a valuable tool for development aid programmes. The international community has recognized the need to define young athletes as children first, and athletes second, while acknowledging special needs children might have in the competitive arena of sport. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) establishes an overarching framework for guiding those who provide or supervise sport for children. Article 31 of the CRC recognizes the right of a child to ‘rest, leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate freely in cultural life and arts’.
The UNICEF specifically recognized the need to focus on child protection and anti-violence measures within sport. In July 2010, the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (“IRC”) released a report on ‘Protecting Children from Violence in Sport’ (the “Report”), to address the concerns surrounding safety in sport for children. The Report recognized that in order to realize the full potential of the benefits of sport, the large gaps in knowledge on the subject of child protection need to be filled. The Report recommends a number of measures to address the complexity of the issue, including, improved data collection; strengthened structures and systems; increased education; awareness-raising and training; creation of ethical guidelines and codes of conduct; and implementation of international sport for development programmes and activities. The Report, for the first time concretely addresses the need for specific mechanisms and standards to make competitive sport a safer place for children.
European Union (“EU”)
The EU has made significant efforts to recognize the importance of responsible and safe sport. In December 2000, the European Council’s (“EC’s”) Declaration on the specific characteristics of sport, recognized the important social function associated with sport in Europe and laid the foundation for implementing common policies for sport. In 2007, the EC came out with a White Paper on Sport, which identified the importance of investment and promotion of training of young talent in proper conditions for sustainable development of sport at all levels. The EC recommended that in addition to the matters taken up, close attention should be paid to less exposed subjects including prevention of sport accidents for children.
Further, sport was specifically included in the Lisbon Treaty (2007), making it mandatory for Member States of the EU to legislate on issues related thereto. Another significant step for preparation of common legislation in sport is the Coubertin Action plan, which proposed that Member States and sport organisations should cooperate on the protection of the moral and physical integrity of young people through the dissemination of information on existing legislation, establishment of minimum standards and exchange of best practices.
The European Child Safety Alliance published ‘A Guide to Child Safety Regulations and Standards in Europe’ (the “Guide”), which provides an insight into issues of child safety in sport and construction of sports equipment. The Guide raises pertinent questions about safety requirements and test methods for football, hockey, handball, gymnastics and other sports, while examining the current gaps in the European regulations. For instance, the Guide while acknowledging the presence of standards for construction of sports equipment such as helmets for alpine skiers, equestrian activities, mountaineers and ice hockey players, highlights the specific lack of a regulation mandatorily requiring children to wear helmets when participating in these sports. A suitable practice endorsed to fill this gap borrows from the United Kingdom legislation which mandates protective headgear viz UK Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act, 1990. With respect to football (soccer), the Guide recognizes that the current standards of football goals deal solely with organised training and competition and exclude school and leisure use, the Guide also identifies the existing lack of technical requirements within these standards addressing the fixation and stability of goals.
Australia has made constant efforts to recognize the special needs of the young athlete. The New South Wales (“NSW”) Department of Sport and Recreation came out with the Child Protection and Intervention Policy and Guidelines Template in 1999, which incorporates a child protection policy template and guidelines that organisations can utilise within their own (state, regional or local) structures. The said template includes an overview of the roles and responsibilities towards child protection specific to organisations, administrators, coaches, volunteers and officials, and provides for risk management and minimisation strategies. The responsibility of coaches and trainers towards the child player has received its platform in Australia, with the establishment of ‘Play by the Rules’, an online training resource for coaches, administrators, officials and players by the Australian Sports Commission, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and Queensland Commission for Children, Young People and Child Guardian. Another effort in this respect is a manual for coaches developed by the NSW Ministry of Tourism, Sport and Recreation in collaboration with Soccer NSW, NSW Sport and Recreation, and Blacktown District Sport Football Association in 2004.
In addition to the policy efforts, child safety in sport has been addressed in Australia by providing variations of the sport adapted for the young athlete. A few illustrations are:
In 2004, Cricket Australia, the governing body for cricket in Australia, released a ‘Junior Cricket Policy’, to provide a framework for all those involved in the game at a junior level and allow for a consistent, safe and nurturing environment for all. The policy aims at implementing appropriate formats of the game for children between the ages of 5 and 18. Further, the policy provides comprehensive guidelines and strategies to promote safety and prevent injuries for young players. It is recommended that junior players are prevented from batting or from fielding in close proximity to the batsmen, especially when a hard ball is being used, without wearing a helmet and a faceguard. . Further, with the exception of wicketkeepers and slip fielders, players under the age of 14 are not permitted to be positioned within 10 meters of the batsman’s stumps. The policy also provides guidelines for the management of growing junior cricket clubs.
The Australian Football League (“AFL”), the governing body for football in Australia has a specific Match Policy, for the conduct of the game for players between the ages of 5 and 18. The overriding objective of the policy is to ‘provide an environment where young players can play the game and inexperienced umpires can sequentially develop their skills through activities, games, match rules and conditions commensurate with their stage of learning and level of ability’. The minimum age of participation is 5 through the NAB AFL Auskick Program. For participation in an AFL junior match the young player should be at least 7 years old. The AFL policy recommends that children participate in competitions with a two- year age span, for example an 8 year old player cannot compete with a player over 10 years old. Prior approval from the state football body would be necessary, in the event a league has no alternative but to conduct competitions involving players outside the recommended two-year age span. The policy also provides stage descriptions for various age groups with different objectives and skills to be developed in each stage; ages 5 to 11 comprise the fundamental stage; ages 12 to 14 the sampling stage; ages 15 to 16 the identification stage; and ages 17 to 18 the specialising stage.
The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the UK has published the ‘Standards for Safeguarding and Protecting Children in Sport’, which provides a framework for creating a safer environment for children in sport. Apart from this, like Australia, UK addresses child safety in sport by providing variations of the sport suitably adapted for the young athlete, a few illustrations are:
The Rugby Football Union (“RFU”), the governing body for rugby in the UK, has a Safeguarding Policy for children playing the sport. Children are usually introduced to the game of rugby through its non-contact forms such as tag or touch rugby. Regulation 15 of the RFU provides for a form of youth rugby, known as Age Grade Rugby for the Under 6 to the Under 18 age groups. Players under 6 years of age are not permitted to participate in any types of fixtures, matches, competitions, tournaments or festivals. Further, children are allowed to play contact rugby only with players of their own age grade.
The Football Association of Wales (“FAW”) has introduced a modified version of football suitable for children of ages 5 and 11 known as Mini Football. Mini Football while maintaining all the features and the essence of the game is custom fit to meet the developmental needs of the young athlete. The FAW Mini Football Regulations provide directions on rules of play and equipment, on the basis of age group. Similarly, there is Mini Hockey for children below the age of 13.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) has produced the Safe Hands –Cricket’s Policy for safeguarding children as part of its commitment to ensuring that the game provides a safe, friendly and enjoyable experience for children. The ECB has introduced two variations of the game of cricket for children- Kwik Cricket, for children aged 5 and upwards; and Inter cricket, for children between the ages of 12 and 14. Both of these forms of cricket, custom fit the rules of the game for the young player and provide for safer equipment.
Traditionally, Indian sports have been contact sports such as Kho-Kho or Kabbadi that did not require sophisticated equipment, due to which the question of safety regulation for children did not arise. However, with the advent of Western sports and the increasing popularity for sports such as cricket, football, basketball, it has become imperative that special provisions be made for the safety of children playing the sport. Chapter 2 of the 11 th Five Year Plan of the Planning Commission (2007-2012) sets out issues to be addressed with regard to youth and sports and directs the States to legislate on the same.
Further, the objectives of the Sports Authority of India (“SAI”), the field arm of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports established in 1984, includes the promotion of sports in India; the establishment and management of institutions to produce high calibre coaches, sports scientists and physical education teachers; and construction, development and maintenance of sports infrastructure and facilities. While the SAI encourages the young athlete by offering promotional schemes and providing them with requisite infrastructure, coaching facilities and exposure, it does not concretely set sport specific standards addressing the safety of the child athlete.
Although there are no specific safety regulations for most sports played in India, there are distinct classifications based on age and gender with varying rules to prevent injury and other harm to young sportspersons. For instance, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the governing body for cricket in India, has regulations under which the domestic tournaments played in the country are classified on the basis of age groups such as Under 16, Under 19 and Under 22. Similarly for rugby, Under 12, Under 14 and Under 17 age groups have been introduced by the Indian Rugby Football Union (“IRFU”), the governing body for rugby in India. The IRFU has also made efforts to follow the mandate of the International Rugby Football Board which encourages young children to play only the non- contact version of the sport.
While there are mechanisms to ensure safety within sport in India, Indian law is currently in need of concrete standards and mechanisms distinguishing the specific safety requirements of the young player from that of the adult player. Apart from informal training practices unique to each sport, there are no tangible rules or guidelines ensuring the protection of the young athlete. With the international community recognizing the need for protecting the child athlete from the risks and pressures of competitive sport, it is time to fine tune Indian law to address the safety needs of the child athlete in the various popular sporting disciplines.
© The Sports Law & Policy Centre