Robbie’s soccer game Thursday night was delayed for an hour due to lightning. It pushed the end time to 10:30 p.m. We parents feed the team after the game, so with the meal and clean-up I got home after midnight. I would have gladly sat in a downpour to avoid getting home so late, and I’m sure the players with thoughts of school the next day would rather have played than sat in the locker room waiting the storm out. They usually eat around 3 p.m., so they really look forward to their meal after the game to quell the hunger pangs. Even Robbie texted me during the break to be sure we’d have food on the tables right after the game. Lightning has always been a huge inconvenience.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that last Sunday night TV and radio sports pundits took exception to the NFL’s lightning policy when the Seattle Seahawks’ football game against San Francisco was halted for over an hour due to an electrical storm. Listening to the game on XM radio while driving home from Indianapolis, I was struck by several phrases used in the announcer’s booth. First, there were the usual complaints about wasted time as the reporters scrambled to fill what was otherwise totally empty air. Then there were the statements that this was Seattle after all, poster child for rain, so the fans were used to sitting out in the drizzle for most sporting events. Finally came the inevitable declaration that "in 30 years of announcing for the NFL, I’ve never known any player or fan to be injured or killed by lightning." The discussion focused primarily on the expense of the delay for NBC, addressing the issue of losing their East Coast viewers as the time approached 11 p.m. in New York, the effect on advertising revenue, and, oddly enough, the negative impact on Seattle’s attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest fans in the NFL. Once the game restarted and the fans left the protection of the entrance tunnels, the argument continued on the wisdom of having a policy that halts games when lightning is detected in the area. The fact that no player or fan had suffered physical harm due to lightning became the prevailing argument that the policy should be abolished.
Well, those same announcers might be surprised to learn some interesting facts about lightning before so quickly adopting an attitude of bravado in the face of danger. First of all, lightning has three ways it can kill or injure people: 1. Direct hit; 2. Indirect hit; 3. Resultant hit creating devastation such as a fire or explosion. It is the latter cause that proves elusive in the statistics about lightning injuries and death. In many cases, authorities are unable to determine if a disaster is lightning-related even if suspected. A direct hit is self-explanatory. A fan stands on the sidelines and lightning strikes the fan. Cases of direct hits usually result in death. However, the good news, if you can call it that, is that most interactions with lightning (95-97 percent) involve indirect hits. Since lightning is an electrical discharge, those of you who took basic physics know that electricity seeks a path of least resistance. Surprise! Human and animal flesh have less resistance than the ground, so as the lightning strike dissipates and travels through the earth, it will detour into our bodies as the easier route. These indirect strikes can cause death and serious injury, but the main effects are burns and a sudden cessation of breathing, which can be improved by immediate administration of CPR.
Second, lightning causes more deaths than any other weather phenomenon (Martin A. Urman), including flood, earthquakes and tornadoes, combined. Of lightning injuries and deaths, 68 percent occurred in sports-related activities. Open water strikes are the most dangerous involving fishing and swimming. But as sports participation in open area venues increases, so too have the deaths and injuries. The statistics are elusive but could be as high as 150. NOAA states it can only accurately document an average of 51 fatalities a year in the U.S. of which approximately 35 occurred during sports. However, the agency also admits that the number is probably up to four times higher since even the best medical examiner can’t detect lightning as the reason for a heart attack or stroke during an event without the tell-tale burns that don’t always result. John S. Jensenius, Jr., Lightning Safety Specialist for the National Weather Service, reported "From 2006 to 2012, there were a total of 26 fishing deaths, 15 camping deaths, 14 boating deaths and 11 beach deaths. Of the sports activities, soccer saw the greatest number of deaths with 12, as compared to golf with 8." He only focuses on deaths and doesn’t include injuries in his report. According to the Canadian Government, outdoor recreation accounted for 68 percent of lightning-related deaths and 68 percent of lightning-related injuries. Other U.S. reports state that sports-related lightning injuries have increased recently due to larger participation in these activities. Sadly, they also report that most people injured or killed were just steps away from cover. The National Weather Service has strict guidelines to increase safety during electrical storms. Most of these guidelines have now been adopted by major sports organizations including US Youth Soccer and, yes, the NFL. At the first signs of lightning, and especially when accompanied by thunder, games are to be halted and fans, players, coaches, and staff are to seek immediate cover. Everyone can return to the activity when there has not been any evidence of lightning or rumble of thunder for 30 minutes. These guidelines have been recognized as a main reason that lightning deaths have dropped from 5 deaths per million in 1940 to less than 0.3 deaths per million in 2000.
The least persuasive argument for ignoring these safety measures is that you have never witnessed a lightning death or injury in "X" number of years of participating in a sport. We all have auto insurance even if we have never been in an accident. Why? Because accidents are random events and can’t be predicted to avoid them. Lightning is completely random and strikes are unpredictable (hence the myth that lightning never strikes twice in the same place). But we do have a bit of an advantage when it comes to lightning because we can actually see the approach of an electrical storm. NOAA actually plots the lightning cloud to ground strikes so we can see the pattern as it nears. We need to keep in mind that we can be as far as 20 miles away from any direct lightning strikes and still be affected by them. As they move closer, the risk becomes greater. Lightning does not need to course down directly on a soccer or football field for fans and players to be in danger. In fact, such incidents are extremely rare. The greatest danger comes from lightning a distance away traveling to and seeking the "warm body" so it can escape the earth. The danger from an indirect hit is not only a sudden cessation of brain activity and breathing, but serious burns. Sitting on metal bleachers only increases the possibility of exacerbating lightning injuries, not by attracting the electricity but the metal heats up causing burns. Wearing metal cleats also won’t attract lightning to the body, but they can lead to burns on the feet should an indirect hit come to the player. So it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remove cleats quickly to run to safety. Rubber boots or shoes won’t insulate you from a strike but may diminish the possibility of burns. Hindsight is a wonderful illuminator about what went wrong or right, but has little power to predict any chaotic event. Someone who boasts that she has swum through dozens of electrical storms without incident could be a new lightning statistic the next day. I’m sure that the NFL learned through its involvement with the concussion controversy, which is a far more predictable outcome than lightning, that a lack of caution can result in a big expense. The loss of viewership and thereby important advertising revenue should never be the excuse for not protecting human lives.
In youth sports there are no big economic consequences to halting a game for lightning protection, so there is absolutely no excuse for not taking the most cautious approach possible. When Robbie and Bryce were playing for their high school in the state finals, I was 1,500 miles away helping with the birth of my fifth grandchild. So I awaited constant updates. When scores of minutes went by without any phone call to update me, I got panicked, thinking the team was doing so badly no one wanted to report to me. I learned later that there were actually three storm-related breaks in the action, each one at least 45 minutes. It took nearly 4.5 hours to complete that state championship, which my sons’ high school eventually won. That was the good news. The bad news was that a certain mom nearly expired from a "resultant" hit during an anxiety-ridden wait for the outcome! As parents, we need to remember that lightning is not only random but non-discriminatory. Two kids standing two feet apart may experience entirely different outcomes – one might collapse from an electrical discharge and the other will not be touched. Therefore, we can’t expect that our kids will be safe in numbers. Although there are few incidents of multiple injuries and deaths from direct or indirect hits, the numbers are increasing in team sports. We need to err to the side of caution. It costs us nothing but time, and in the case of Robbie’s game, nourishment and sleep. Yearly, around the world more than 240,000 people are injured in lightning-related incidents and nearly 70 percent of those involve recreational activities. That’s a staggering number when we think about our kids. Ask your club to invest in a NOAA National Weather Report radio to keep track of storms or buy one yourself and bring it to games. A lightning detector can be an additional safety investment. You can spend more than $800 or as little as $75, but most competent and well-reviewed detectors cost in the $250 range. It’s a small price to pay for weather safety. But even if your club chooses to rely on the age-old method of observation, no method works if ignored. We need to avoid the temptation to "just get this half over." A few minutes of hesitation can mean the difference between safety and tragedy. We don’t want something to end in the blink of an eye when the gentle lag of caution can insure that the next game and the next and the next will include us and our children.