Crime and accidents impact significantly higher percentages of student-athletes than the general student population, according to recent statistics.

And that’s not counting the times your student-athletes travel to athletic competitions outside of the United States.

So you can only imagine how safety issues can be compounded during student-athletes’ international travel, when decreased supervision, unfamiliar surroundings, language barriers and cultural differences are thrown into the mix.

But athletics administrators can mitigate those risks and liabilities and help ensure a safer traveling experience for their student-athletes, according to Jim Hutton, chief security officer at On Call International, a travel risk management company.

Failure to implement a proactive approach to travel safety could endanger your student-athletes and increase the risk of damaging your school’s and department’s brand and reputation in the eyes of your stakeholders, Hutton said. And that could hurt recruiting opportunities, or cause boosters, sponsors or donors to back out due to bad press or concerns about potential liability, he said.

It can be difficult to hold student-athletes’ attention during advance preparation and education, which can also be time-consuming and expensive, Hutton said. But that investment can help you avoid a crisis, which would become even more complex and time-consuming, he said.

And, if a crisis does occur, evidence of your pre-emptive, proactive work will lessen your liability, he said. “If you can demonstrate due diligence, you’re going to be in a better position to address any concerns,” he said.

Hutton highlighted 10 key steps you can take to improve international travel safety for your student-athletes:

  1. Educate student-athletes about the host country’s culture. Use online or in-person training to review language, food, alcohol/drug laws/expectations, appropriate versus inappropriate gestures, and issues of race, sex and gender. Sensitize student-athletes to cultural and political differences. “Nationalism can certainly creep in. Lack of experience can creep in. There can be intentional or accidental cultural rubs,” Hutton warned. That’s why you need to prepare student-athletes for how to prevent and respond to cultural misunderstandings, as well as assaults and sexual abuse. Educate student-athletes about the gender roles in the host country. For example, female student-athletes might find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted attention in other countries where residents or authorities might look the other way or even treat such behavior as acceptable. Arm student-athletes with strategies to de-escalate such situations, whether by making a quick phone call to a predesignated emergency contact or leaving the area. Also consider prearranging a partnership with a local host — an individual (perhaps a bilingual student) who lives in that country who speaks that language, understands that culture, and can help de-escalate problem situations. “Local knowledge is best,” Hutton said. You can find local hosts through destination management companies or transportation/insurance companies. Or, at a bare minimum, bring along someone from the United States who understands that country’s culture and language.
  2. If you have international students on your team, prepare coaches, staff and student-athletes for potential issues. For example, a female student-athlete from a particular culture might need permission from her husband or other family before traveling with your team. Or, international student-athletes on your team might encounter harassment or racism when traveling to some countries.
  3. Plan for student-athletes’ health needs. You have a vested interest in student-athletes’ health and nutrition. So ensure they receive any necessary inoculations and will have proper food and supplements available. Ensure they’re carrying legal, original prescriptions in case they need to show them to authorities. For student-athletes with chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, ensure they have medical clearance, necessary medications, and paper or electronic medical records. Plan where student-athletes will go if they need a specialist or a hospital with a burn unit or trauma center, especially in case of head and neck injuries, but even for sprains and strains. Have a plan for medical evacuations.
  4. Ensure coaches, staff and others have crisis management training. “Sometimes it’s hard to make it better, but you can certainly make it worse if you make poor decisions,” Hutton said. Know if your host country is prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or air quality problems, and have crisis management plans in place for each situation, he said. In advance, find out the answers to these questions: “Does the management of the traveling partner have some background in crisis management and do they have a clear communication system? Does everyone know how to get help when they need it?”
  5. Provide supervision, communication plans. Have enough staff travel with the team to provide adequate supervision. Ensure student-athletes and staff know how to reach each other and where to report accidents, injuries, crimes, etc. Identify one main contact person for emergencies. Establish a system for sending blast texts/emails to everyone. Consider arranging for a security manager, agent or guards to provide an added layer of protection.
  6. Research airlines and hotels. Find out their safety records and fire prevention/response plans. Ask if hotels provide escorts to parking lots. If traveling by boat, hire someone to inspect it for adequate safety equipment. Remember that other countries don’t have the same standards, requirements or laws. Access a third-party provider to make sure vehicles and drivers are safe and sober.
  7. Look into the safety of excursions. “A lot of the accidents and injuries occur during free time,” Hutton said. Driving and swimming are the most common areas of injury, especially when alcohol is involved, he said. “Equip them with information so they can make better choices,” he said. Overcome their sense of invincibility by sharing narratives of near-misses or crises that have happened in that area where they’re going. That will have more power than a list of dos and don’ts. Before planning a swimming excursion, educate student-athletes about riptides in that country, and find out if lifeguards will be on hand, or hire lifeguards. The same goes for hiring guides on zip-line or hiking excursions. Find out and communicate the rules of the road and license/insurance requirements for drivers. Or, better yet, keep student-athletes and staff out of the driver’s seat by just providing shuttle transportation and/or hiring a transport coordinator.
  8. Address conduct expectations. Teach them how to be a good guest, and what that means in that particular country. Encourage student-athletes to use positive peer pressure to reel in their teammates if they’re acting inappropriately. Explain that failure to do so can negatively impact the whole team because they and their teammates represent their team, their school and their country. Prepare student-athletes for how they’re expected to handle access to recreational drugs and alcohol, which may be legal in the host country but not back home. Warn student-athletes that using drugs or alcohol, or any other misconduct, would violate team and school conduct codes. Make sure student-athletes understand the potential ramifications and seriousness of misconduct and criminal activity, which could lead to arrest and land them in the criminal justice system in a foreign country, where they won’t be protected by U.S. laws or American status. Warn them that an incident involving a U.S. sports team could inadvertently trigger pre-existing distrust or animosity toward Americans.
  9. Have student-athletes register with the government before departure. Go to to register with the U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
  10. Re-evaluate your international travel plans, procedures and partners on a frequent basis. Even if you’ve been taking the same team to the same foreign country for many years, don’t assume that nothing has changed or needs to be changed. “Complement that muscle memory with situational awareness,” Hutton advised. Look into what might have changed since your last trip, including politics, crime rates, safety standards and laws. The safety records of your transportation partners can even change. Or, to trim travel expenses, a staff member might have switched hotels, or a transportation coordinator might have changed shuttle providers. Find out exactly why it costs less money, and if the same safety precautions are in place.

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