Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Fall 9-1-2020

Abstract

In this Article, we offer an empirical analysis of the relationship between liability waivers signed by parents and participation rates in youth sports. Specifically, we explore whether waiver enforcement is statistically associated with increased participation in youth sports. Our study finds no significant evidence of such a relationship.

The impetus for this investigation comes from an experience shared by parents all over the United States. A parent enrolls his minor child in a sports activity like a school team, club sport, skating party, or tennis camp. Organizers condition the child’s participation on the parent signing a liability waiver in the organizers’ favor. Legally, doctrinal reasons exist to doubt the enforceability of these releases. Despite these concerns, many courts enforce youth sports releases. Although these decisions could be justified on grounds of parental autonomy and freedom of contract, the primary argument favoring enforcement asserts that youth sports releases serve minors’ interests, even at the cost of greater uncompensated injury. Without enforceable waivers, youth sports providers may reduce their offerings or go out of business to avoid tort liability risks. Conversely, allowing youth sports providers to avoid liability increases youth sports opportunities, and youth sports participation by extension, which confers benefits on youths outweighing any increased risk of uncompensated injury.

This policy argument might be right. However, it is plausible only if youth sports participation increases when courts enforce exculpatory agreements signed by parents. However, no prior study has tested whether enforcing youth sports releases has the hypothesized effect. The study described here therefore provides valuable information about the persuasiveness of arguments on either side of a split in contract and tort law.

We conducted our study by applying a linear mixed effects regression analysis6 to a dataset containing information about high school sports participation rates and the fifty states’ law including the District of Columbia from 1988-2014. This allowed us to test for an association between enforcing youth sports releases and high school sports participation rates. Our analysis uncovered no statistically significant association. This implies that the major argument given by courts for enforcing youth sports releases lacks empirical support.

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