Participating in athletics can sometimes be risky business. Sports-related injuries are common on college campuses, and athlete fatalities are not unheard of either. This risk of harm poses an important question: Do universities possess a duty of care to their student athletes in the event of a sports-related injury or death?
Michelle D. McGirt, a sports law scholar, offers some insight into potential answers to this question by analyzing the relationship between universities and student athletes through the framework of U.S. common law. McGirt offers her analysis using the legal decisions of cases involving student athlete injury or death within the United States. The application of legal discourse involving this issue provides a clearer understanding as to why there ought to be a special duty of care offered to student athletes that exceeds that of a typical student.
McGirt argues that universities do, in fact, have an imposed duty of care to their student athletes. (McGirt, p. 12) This duty is based on a mutual dependence between the athlete and the university. Student athletes rely on the university to receive an education and hone their physical abilities, while the university receives economic benefits as well as increased student enthusiasm and involvement in campus sporting events. While the student athlete is not an employee of the university, McGirt argues that it is important to distinguish them from private students due to the nature of the relationship universities have with campus sports. (McGirt, p. 10)
Based on legal precedent, McGirt argues that universities are rarely liable for the injury or death of a student athlete. However, the courts have recognized and stated that there is a special duty of care that universities have toward student athletes, and those involved in campus sports should hold a special standing in comparison to the private student body. Although universities may not suffer legal recourse for a sports-related death, examples of how these institutions handle and memorialize athlete fatalities can be observed through historical findings.
An article published in the Arizona Republic reported in February 1961 that University of Utah student Doug Bingham had died after suffering an apparent heart attack during a wrestling match in Wyoming. The article highlights Bingham’s prior good health and academic standing, as well as his widow and three young children.
A tribute for Doug Bingham was published in the Daily Utah Chronicle in February 1961. The Chronicle is a paper for the University of Utah community that is highly circulated on campus. The tribute highlights Bingham’s accomplishments and hopes that his untimely death will “carry a moral and a thought into every university student in America.” This particular quote emphasizes the reach of Bingham’s death, and the moral obligations that all students ought to have toward their peers. A follow-up article titled “Traditions” was published in the Daily Utah Chronicle in February 1961 to further explain the incident and urge students to “do their part to help right a tragic incident.”
A sense of duty to Bingham’s memory and surviving family was sparked when Floyd Dyches, with the University of Utah campus police, wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Utah Chronicle in March 1961. Dyches urged the student body to “make a Doug Bingham fund” in order to compensate his family for the loss of their husband and father. Jackie Black, chairman of the Union Talent Extravaganza, announced in an article published in the Daily Utah Chronicle in March 1961 that all proceeds from the yearly school talent show would be donated to the Bingham fund. The University of Utah senior class also made a donation toward the Bingham fund, which was published in the Daily Utah Chronicle in May 1961.
The 1961 death of Doug Bingham, a University of Utah student athlete, was recognized as a campus tragedy. Bingham’s death also sparked discourse on how the university ought to respond to the loss of a valued student-athlete. The campus honored the memory and paid tribute to Bingham’s special relationship with the University of Utah by urging students to donate funds to aid the affected family. These tributes and fundraisers also served to solidify Bingham’s dedication and engrave his special standing within the public memory of the University of Utah campus. In present day, there is a growing concern with the well-being of student athletes. Universities can reflect upon the past, to instances like the death of Doug Bingham, to better address injury or death with compassion and a sense of duty to those affected.
Gloria Hammond is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism.
“Heart Attack Kills Utah U. Wrestler,” Arizona Republic, February 27, 1961, 41.
“Glowing Tribute,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 28, 1961, 2.
“Traditions..,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 3, 1961, 2.
Floyd Dyches, “Letter to the Editor,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 6, 1961, 2.
“Extravaganza Proceeds Set for Bingham Fund,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 7, 1961, 1.
“Senior Class Gift Divided to Benefit University, Campus,” Daily Utah Chronicle, May 25, 1961, 1.
McGirt, Michelle. “Do Universities Have a Special Duty of Care to Protect Student-Athletes from Injury?” Sports & Entertainment Law Journal 6, no. 1 (1999): 1-14.