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Study: 5.2-Foot Buffer Needed to Make Basketball Safer

Paul Steinbach

Researchers at the University of New Haven have examined what constitutes a safe buffer zone around basketball courts.

In a 16-page study appearing in the Sport and Recreation Law Association's Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport, UNH researchers Ceyda Mumcu, Gil Fried and Dr. Dan Liu cite as their research motivation the number of catastrophic injuries — including paraplegia and quadriplegia — resulting from basketball players running into walls or other obstructions in close proximity to courts. The mechanics for each injury may vary, but often at issue is whether enough room existed outside of the end line to protect players whose momentum carries them outside the court boundaries.

Various playing rules and court diagrams mandate a minimum of 3 feet with a preferable 10 feet of buffer space, but the UNH research team determined there to be no evidence that 3 feet was anything but a guess. To lend scientific backing to the buffer issue, three research studies were undertaken. The first examined a number of gyms to determine standard practice for buffer zones. The second study surveyed coaches to determine mechanics of players leaving the court — by getting fouled or performing a basketball move such as diving for a loose ball, for example. 

Lastly, a major study was undertaken using a real basketball game, speed guns, force plates, and other physics tools to measure what players actually do during a game, how they travel, and how long it takes them to stop.

The study did not examine the impact of being fouled, padding issues and other issues. Instead, it strictly examined the amount of space needed for players to slow down based on traditional basketball movements. The study concluded that "by adopting at least a 5.2-foot buffer zone (and preferably an 8-foot buffer zone), most facilities can provide a safer distance for players, but this distance should be tempered based on variables highlighted in the paper such as the player’s age, size, experience, and the facility’s player injury history."

"This conclusion can have major ramifications for gyms all over the world," the researchers wrote in a press release accompanying the study's publication. "Facility managers should examine their basketball courts to see if they are indeed safe. While distance alone does not make a court safe, those designing and building new courts should strive as much as possible to expand the buffer zone to provide the safest environment possible. Furthermore, different rules/governing bodies should also examine their rules to determine if they are in fact accurate/appropriate."

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