Pro sports’ challenge: keeping fans safe – and close to the action

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NEW YORK (AP) – Tiger Woods had a rough weekend at the British Open, and so too did Jennifer Wilson, the 63-year-old fan who required two stitches to her bloodied head after she was beaned by one of his wayward shots.

Her injury highlighted the perennial challenge faced by those who oversee golf and other big-time spectator sports – finding the proper balance between fans’ proximity to the action and their safety.

Major league baseball teams warn fans before every game to be alert for foul balls and the occasional flying bat. NASCAR has heightened fences to keep flying debris out of the grandstands. The National Hockey League ordered safety netting installed at each end of NHL arenas after a 13-year-old girl was killed by a deflected puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002.

And at the Tour de France, which concludes on Sunday, fan safety has for years been a source of controversy and concern as thousands of spectators line the route each day, usually without any barriers separating them from the cyclists. One boy was killed in 2000 and another in 2002 by sponsors’ vehicles accompanying the race, and a 78-year-old man was badly injured this year when struck by German rider Patrik Sinkewitz after the eighth stage.

Golf’s ruling powers have as tough a task as anyone, given the huge throngs that attend major tournaments and the inevitability that even the best pros will send an occasional shot soaring spectacularly off-course.

PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs said advanced technology, along with a dose of common sense, has enabled the PGA to minimize the risk to fans while affording them a close-up view of the action.

“It’s something we’re very mindful of,” Combs said. “We try to educate fans to stay alert, to stand away from likely areas of play.”

The PGA now uses lasers to map the location of every shot by every competitor. Over a period of years, if the tour returns to a given course, the PGA is able to identify areas that are safe for fans to congregate, and it ropes the course accordingly, Combs said.

“We also keep an eye on the weather,” he said. “If a strong wind is coming up, and pushing balls to an area where they were not anticipated, we adjust the roping on a given day.”

On television, it sometime appears that a golfer playing from the rough must hit through a narrow opening lined by fans on each side. But Combs said the perspective on TV can be misleading, and the tournament marshals ensure there is ample open space for any shot.

Wilson, the woman conked by Woods’ approach shot Saturday at Carnoustie’s 6th hole, emerged from her ordeal in good spirits, but the event was unsettling.

“I had a pit in my stomach,” Woods said. “There was blood all over the place. I don’t know how she was smiling.”

Wilson and a freelance photographer beaned the same day by a tee shot of Sergio Garcia both received autographed golf gloves as compensation for their pains.

In baseball, fans hit by thrown bats are sometimes offered another bat to keep as a souvenir.

But MLB teams are adamant that they bear no legal responsibility for injuries from thrown bats or batted balls, and they print detailed disclaimers on the backs of their tickets. In 2004, a Massachusetts appellate court threw out a lawsuit filed by a woman who said she incurred nearly $500,000 in medical costs and lost wages after being struck in the face by a foul ball at a Red Sox game.

Even someone with scant knowledge of baseball should realize that “a central feature of the game is that batters will forcefully hit balls that may go astray from their intended direction,” the court ruled.

Though dozens of MLB fans are struck by foul balls each season, there has been only one fatality from such an incident, according to baseball researchers – a 14-year-old boy killed by a foul line drive off the bat of Manny Mota at Dodger Stadium in 1970.

Until 2002, the NHL had gone through its entire history without a fan being killed by a flying puck. But in March of that year, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was struck in the head on a shot by Columbus’ Espen Knutsen that deflected into the stands. She died two days later, and her parents eventually obtained a $1.2 million settlement from the team, the league and the arena management.

Brittanie’s death prompted the NHL to require safety nets at both ends of the ice in every arena. Initially, many fans were displeased – saying their view from the behind the goals was now distorted.

Not all fan injuries result from flying objects.

In 2004, Oakland A’s fan Jennifer Bueno suffered a broken nose from a chair thrown by Texas Rangers relief pitcher Frank Francisco, who was angered by heckling from Bueno’s husband. Earlier this season, Paul Robinson broke his neck when another fan at Yankee Stadium toppled onto him from a higher row of seats; Robinson said the man was drunk.

Whatever the risks for spectators, they are perhaps greater for coaches.

A Green Bay Packers assistant coach, Gil Haskell, suffered a skull fracture when he was bowled over by a player on the sidelines of the NFC title game in 1996. Another sideline collision last season left Penn State head coach Joe Paterno with a broken shinbone and two torn knee ligaments.

And on Sunday night, a Colorado Rockies minor league coach, Mike Coolbaugh, died after being struck in the head by a line drive as he stood in the first-base coach’s box during a game in North Little Rock, Ark. The accident raised the question of whether base coaches should be required to wear helmets.

“The safety of players and fans and people is the ballpark is always our No. 1 priority and it is something we will be discussing,” baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said.

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