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March 18, 2014 • Athletic Administration

Are your locker rooms safe?

Viruses, bacteria pose threats to athletes everywhere

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

News that a number of Tampa Bay Buccaneers players had contracted MRSA during the 2013 season was alarming for athletes and health care professionals aware of its catastrophic capabilities.

For others it was met with confusion, speculation and questions.

Coaches are familiar with common bacteria and viruses that can fester inside filthy locker rooms, but many don’t understand the tragic consequences they can have on athletic programs. Even schools that take precautionary steps to reduce the likeliness of illnesses may still be putting athletes in danger. Keeping facilities clean is a tough job, and it requires more than just a mop.

From equipment manufacturers to state-of-the-art cleaning products, more resources are available today to help schools keep coaches and athletes out of harm’s way. But for those to be effective, schools must first make an effort to educate everyone in their programs.

“We know what to do if an athlete has an infection, but it’s more important that we prevent it and be proactive,” said Ron Courson, director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia. “A lot of it is education. Sometimes I see athletes come in and address something after the situation gets out of hand.”

MRSA and other staph infections have led the conversation, but the flu, athlete’s foot and other skin infections have become problematic. Even the most competent cleaning crews are prone to missing hot spots where bacteria may be rampant. That’s because spores can develop where most people wouldn’t even think to look, and once they infiltrate your facilities, they can spread like wildfire.

That was a prevailing concern with the Buccaneers. MRSA is highly contagious, and at least one team had its visiting locker room cleaned by workers in HAZMAT suits as soon as the team left. Most schools will never go to that extreme, but it highlights just how dangerous some diseases can be.

Courson said despite the attention MRSA has received over the last year, it’s a preventable infection that can be treated if it’s caught early enough. Part of the concern is athletes tend to brush off minor scrapes or cuts, and those types of injuries need to be taken seriously to avoid infection. Not only for the benefit of the athlete, but the coaches, teammates and opponents who may have contact with them.

“You have to be responsible,” Courson said. “Bacteria are what we call ‘opportunistic infections.’ We have bacteria on our skin right now, but if we have a break in our skin or any kind of opening, it burrows beneath the skin.

“One of the things that changed when staph infections and MRSA became big was the sharing of towels that athletes use to dry off their faces. That’s an opportunity to share bacteria.”

The dangers go far beyond using the same towel. Facilities that use whirlpools must keep contagious athletes out of the water, and Courson also cautions players from sharing equipment. During the summer, when Georgia athletes practice in the scathing summer heat, coaches cool down their players by dipping large car wash sponges in water and squeezing them out over their heads. Avoiding contact helps prevent the transmission of diseases.

Common sense goes a long way toward keeping athletes safe, and coaches should encourage teams to constantly take showers and do their laundry. Dirty apparel is a major problem, and high schools , unlike universities, don’t often have equipment managers who clean jerseys and other materials.

Threats exist other places inside your facilities, even those corners and crevices that aren’t visible. Lockers can be a major source of bacteria, especially the old metal lockers that are difficult to clean. That’s why an increasing number of manufacturers are designing open-faced lockers with better ventilation that don’t allow the buildup of moisture and bacteria.

Wenger is among those developing state-of-the-art lockers that are efficient, stylish and effective in keeping locker rooms a safe haven for athletes. Wenger makes GearBoss customizable wood and metal lockers for athletic programs all across the nation.

“Keeping garments dry is not only critical for player comfort, it’s the most important step in the fight for a sanitary locker room,” said Gregg Nelson, senior market manager at Wenger. GearBoss lockers include an easy-to-clean wood laminate incorporating antimicrobial nanosilver technology that kills microorganisms like MRSA, staph, mold and mildew.

Many manufacturers of locker room and facilities equipment are finding ways to safeguard their products from common bacteria, but lockers seem to garner a lot of the attention. At Georgia, Courson said the program has migrated away from using carpet and now has tile floors that are easier to clean. The university made the change after a study showed the most bacteria buildup was in the training room carpet.

Dark and damp places provide the perfect environment for spore growth, and that’s encouraged many schools to make upgrades.

“Sanitation is a huge issue, and our previous wall-mounted dryers didn’t really dry things out in a timely manner,” said Andy Harris, assistant director of football equipment at the University of Minnesota. “Tying each locker into the room’s HVAC system definitely improved the room’s ‘fermenting.’ We’re also drawing bad air out of the room, whether it’s from shoes, shoulder pads or whatever.”

Athletic directors and coaches should work with someone in their programs or outside the school to evaluate their facilities and determine where improvements can be made. Courson believes education is critical to curbing problems before they start, and if enough people are proactive, you might almost entirely eliminate potential threats. That means also keeping athletes informed.

Courson recommends a preseason meeting with coaches and athletes, complete with a handout that informs them of the dangers and visible symptoms associated with common illnesses. Those who are having trouble finding resources to educate their programs can always turn to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“One of the things in sports medicine is we want to prevent,” Courson said. “If we can keep threats from happening, that’s a whole lot better for everyone.”


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