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Fatal Accident Prompts Iowa State Club Sports Changes

Paul Steinbach

Iowa State University has suspended the Crew Club’s activities for at least this academic year following an accident that claimed two students' lives in March.

As reported by The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, the university is also developing a broader risk-assessment plan for all its student clubs and organizations — having found broader systemic failures.

On March 28, a windy day on Little Wall Lake, the Crew Club boat holding ISU freshman Derek Nanni, 19, of Normal, Ill., and ISU sophomore Yaakov Ben-David, 20, of Washington, D.C., capsized, killing both.

“The reviews found that the university's implementation of health and safety policies for university sport clubs was deficient,” according to an ISU summary of the internal and external incident reviews, as reported by The Gazette. “Both reviews concluded that the university failed to clearly define roles and responsibilities for effective oversight of sport clubs, especially for higher risk activities such as the Crew Club.”

The reviews included one conducted by a committee of internal personnel “with student activity and student organization expertise” from the Office of University Counsel, Office of Risk Management, Student Activities Center, and Department of Public Safety Transportation Services.

Conducting the independent external review was the U.S. Council for Athletes Health, aided by Mark Wilson, co-founder of All American Rowing Camp and a rowing expert, according to U.S. Rowing.

The reviews specific to the ISU Crew Club identified six major failures:

  • Although Crew Club student leaders acknowledged wind speeds were outside acceptable limits just before the on-water activity, they didn’t cancel it;
  • Student leaders didn’t “adequately respond” to worsening weather as the practice ensued;
  • The group didn’t use a safety boat, even though conditions required one;
  • Although required, no Crew Club team member or coach was on shore or in a “safety launch” to relay changing weather conditions or to respond to an emergency;
  • Two team members lacked the on-water experience required for the day’s weather and water conditions, violating the club’s constitutional mandate prohibiting members from rowing in conditions outside their abilities;
  • And team leaders didn’t ensure proper safety equipment or communication devices were available in the event of an emergency.

To the broader systemic failures, both reviews found Iowa State’s implementation of health and safety policies for its sports clubs was deficient at the time of the accident — leading to an inadequate level of oversight, training, and support not only for the Crew Club but for other “higher risk” groups, The Gazette reported.

Generally, according to the Iowa State summary, sports clubs are allowed to operate mostly autonomously “without prescribed and consistent oversight by the university” — regardless of risk level. In fact, Iowa State hasn’t analyzed relative risks and safety considerations for each sport club — resulting in inadequate health and safety policies and practices.

Additionally, reviewers found ISU failed to clearly define roles and responsibilities for club oversight — resulting in inadequate supervision. Although sport clubs must have a faculty or staff adviser to coordinate activities, those leaders aren’t “clearly empowered under current policy to provide administrative direction, make safety decisions, or otherwise adequately oversee club activities.”

Even where Crew Club leaders relayed safety concerns to Recreation Services officials, “neither the club leadership nor Recreation Services took adequate measures to address the safety concerns or suspend club activities.”

 In addition to Iowa State's suspension of Club Crew for this academic year, relevant offices such as University Risk Management, Recreation Services and the Student Activities Center will create a plan for “reconstruction or reorganization” of its sports clubs.

According to The Gazette, the plan must include:

  • A risk review of every club, assigning to each a “high,” “moderate,” or “low” risk label;
  • A method for implementing additional safety training and accountability;
  • Safety training requirements for all team members, coaches, and advisers — depending on the risk level;
  • And a mode for making policy revisions and clarifications that define authority and the roles of advisers and administrators — empowering them to halt activities for safety reasons.

After taking those steps, Iowa State will prepare an “after-action report.” A proposed timeline has the new plan prepared by Jan. 31, 2022 and implementation complete by the 2022 spring semester’s end.

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