TAA could face legal consequences if youth sports continue

Official asks state to provide organizations with legal immunity from COVID 

In any other year, the Tabernacle Athletics Association (TAA) would be hard at work creating spring rosters for its young athletes.

In 2021, though, it is tangled in an insurance loop and the sports aren’t happening. If someone were to contract COVID because of a TAA event, President Lynne Hedden said, the organization and its volunteers could be held financially responsible.

“If COVID transmission occurs, they’re going to pass that liability on to the volunteers,” she  explained. “So, the organization would fall first, and then it would come back to the individual coaches who are volunteering their time to do this incredibly wonderful thing for the children of our community.”

TAA is a victim of “pandemic exclusion,” an insurance term that means COVID-related claims aren’t covered. Even after Gov. Phil Murphy announced in December that indoor and outdoor sports could resume, the state has yet to pass laws protecting youth sports organizations from pandemic liability.

Those bills, first introduced in August by state Sen. Christopher Connors, haven’t seen any action in the legislature. 

“It’s awful,” Hedden said. “It’s just a terrible situation that I believe the New Jersey state legislature is putting nonprofit youth athletic associations in.”

Hedden has been a part of TAA for nearly 30 years. She began coaching softball when her daughter was 5 and she’s seen firsthand the difference sports can make on young people.

“It’s killing me that I’m not out coaching or helping or doing something to better the lives of people around me,” she lamented. “Kids are really struggling right now with things like depression.”

Hedden’s also a registered nurse who has worked in emergency rooms. Several of TAA’s coaches died last year from COVID and she worries about the danger she’d put the community in even if spring sports were to continue.

Hedden and a board made up of educators, business owners and a risk-management professional decided that once TAA sports resume, each team will be assigned a COVID officer. That volunteer would ensure athletes and coaches are following guidelines, such as only using their individual equipment and distancing when possible.

“It is my fondest hope that we’ll be able to open registrations for fall sports and offer a full menu of what we do for the fall, and then go into the winter,” Hedden said.

But, winter sports present another challenge for TAA. The organization usually rents out gym space at Tabernacle schools, something the district isn’t allowing during the pandemic.

For now, Hedden encourages community members to reach out to their legislators. She began a letter-writing campaign in hopes of seeing the youth sports immunity bill get a vote in both the Assembly and Senate chambers.

“It’s killing me that we can’t do this right now because of the threat of litigation,” she noted. “The fact that there are lawyers out there salivating at the chance of suing people over COVID transmission in the age of a pandemic is just mind boggling.”