- GEN - 'God forbid it should ever be needed'

Outside the Lines
Outside the Lines
Tuesday, April 10
'God forbid it should ever be needed'

It's a question that many have thought about, but few have actually asked. It's one of those thoughts that bounces around in your head, yet common sense and decency prevents from becoming audible.

It is this: In the event of an air disaster, or some other catastrophic event involving a professional sports team, what would happen? How would a team rebuild? Could it rebuild?

There are always these drafts, these mechanisms by which teams can protect a certain number of players and yet the other team can rebuild itself. But it's sort of an uncomfortable topic.
NHL spokesman Frank Brown on the league's disaster plan
Understandably, it's a sensitive topic that the major four professional sports leagues don't like to talk about. But the question remains. Especially in the aftermath of the air tragedy that rocked the Oklahoma State campus last January and a handful of in-flight scares involving professional teams.

"It certainly isn't one of our favorite topics," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

"There are definitely some other things we'd rather be talking about," said Frank Brown of the NHL.

Luckily, no professional sports team has ever suffered a catastrophic plane crash. There have been close calls, such as in 1960, when a plane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers made an emergency landing in an Iowa cornfield. But nothing catastrophic has ever happened.

In the event that a team disaster ever did occur, each of the four major professional sports leagues has a contingency plan, built around some sort of "disaster draft" designed to restock the team in the event of a tragedy.

Some, like Major League Baseball, remain tight-lipped about its plan, tabbing it "confidential."

"All I can say is that, yes, we have a plan," MLB spokesman Richard Levin said. "But God forbid it should ever be needed."

Others, like the NBA and NFL are more open about their disaster plan. In fact, the NFL will go as far as to provide a faxed copy upon request. Headed under "Administrative/Business Operations," the NFL policy has extensive nuts-and-bolts instructions for replenishing a team in the event of a "disaster" or "near-disaster."


National Basketball Association

If a disaster occurs in which five or more players die or are dismembered, the league will hold a Disaster Draft to replace the individuals who were lost. Teams unaffected by the disaster each would be allowed to protect five players.

National Football League

In a "near disaster," in which fewer than 15 players are killed or lost for the season, teams would be required to play out the season but would receive priority on all waiver claims.

In a "disaster," in which 15 or more players are killed or lost for the season, the commissioner decides whether the team will continue its season. If it does, the "near disaster" plan would kick in. If not, a restocking draft would take place in the offseason and the team would get the No. 1 pick in that year's NFL draft.

National Hockey League

If an accident occurs resulting in the death or disability of five or more active players, the club would be allowed to restock its roster by buying players from other teams using money from an indemnity insurance policy.

Once the disabled club returns to a playing strength of one goalkeeper and 14 players (NHL rosters regularly have 20 active players), the Emergency Rehabilitation Draft can be enacted to finish the re-stocking process. Each club will be able to protect one goalkeeper and 10 position players and the disabled club will draft from the remaining pool of talent.

Teams that lost a player in the first phase of the ERP are exempt from losing a player in the draft.

Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball declined to release information regarding its contingency plan.

-- Wayne Drehs

The NFL plan refers to a near disaster as a common accident in which a team loses fewer than 15 players. A disaster occurs when more than 15 players are lost.

In the NBA, a disaster occurs in which five or more players die or are dismembered. Similar to the NFL, the NBA plan calls for a disaster draft, in which each team would protect five players and the disaster team then would build a team from the remaining pool of talent.

"It enables the effected franchise to rehab itself to whatever extent is possible under such difficult circumstances," said Mike Broeker, a spokesman for the NBA.

In the NFL, teams suffering a near disaster would be required to play out the season, though they would have priority on all waiver claims. If the team lost a quarterback, it would be permitted to draft a quarterback from a team that has a third quarterback.

In a disaster (15 or more lost players), the NFL's commissioner would decide whether or not to continue the team's season. If it were to continue, the near-disaster plan would go into effect. If not, a restocking draft would take place in the offseason. In addition, the team would get the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.

"There are always these drafts, these mechanisms by which teams can protect a certain number of players and yet the other team can rebuild itself," Brown said. "But it's sort of an uncomfortable topic."

Somehow, professional sports teams have managed to avoid the air tragedies that have hit collegiate sports.

The worst incident happened in 1970, when 37 members of the Marshall football team were killed in a crash. A month earlier, the Wichita State football team lost 14 players in a crash.

In 1977, the University of Evansville lost 14 players on its basketball team. That was the last significant air crash involving a U.S. collegiate sports team until the Oklahoma State crash this past January.

The lack of an incident involving a pro sports team doesn't mean professionals have flown worry-free. Just last February, a tire on the San Jose Shark's charter flight, leaving Dallas for St. Louis, exploded on takeoff, severing the plane's hydraulic systems.

The pilot was forced to manually turn around, lower the landing gear, and brake without power assistance.

"That wasn't funny," Sharks coach Darryl Sutter told the San Jose Mercury News. "We were just thankful for having an experienced pilot."

In 1995, the president of Front Page Tours, a company that leases charters to 15-20 professional sports teams, flew on a flight from Washington to Chicago to ease the concerns of several Chicago Bulls following a pair of turbulent flights.

In one case, the Bulls' cabin de-pressurized due to rapid descent, requiring the players to use oxygen masks. In another, a sharp banking turn was required upon takeoff, rattling several players.

And in 1998, the St. Louis Blues had a close call when their TWA charter plane needed several attempts to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport because of strong crosswinds.

"That was the toughest landing I've ever seen as far as rocking and rolling," Blues general manager Larry Pleau said at the time. "I was in the front of the plane and the pilot's door was open. I could see the lights of the runway, and then the runway would disappear. We were going from side to side."

It was yet another case of a pro sports team relying on good luck in a terrifying situation. Luckily, the plane landed safely like every other one ever has.

But if it ever doesn't, each of the four pro sports leagues is quietly ready.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at He can be reached at

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