I was poking around the internet the other day, looking for Minnesota sports stuff to talk about, when I stumbled across this story from ESPN about the 1961 Minneapolis Lakers. . .the team that came closer than any team in pro sports history to forcing a sports league to break out their "worst case scenario" contingency plans.
On January 18, 1960, the Lakers were flying back to Minneapolis after a game in St. Louis. The flight was supposed to take about two hours, but players rightfully started getting suspicious when they were still airborne over three hours after departing St. Louis. It turned out that the generators on the plane had blown out during takeoff, and the plane was flying with no radio, no defroster, no heat, and no cabin lighting. . .in short, the pilots had no idea where they were.
With about 30 minutes worth of fuel left, the decision was made to try to land the plane wherever they could (as opposed to continuing to look for an airport). The plane crash-landed in a corn field near Carroll, Iowa, and everybody on board managed to escape without a scratch.
No professional sports team in North America has experienced the sort of disaster where they have lost multiple players, but there have been instances of it happening with college and amateur teams. Some examples of this are the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team, the 1970 Wichita State University football team, the 1970 Marshall University football team, the 1977 University of Evansville basketball team, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic boxing team. But each of the major sports leagues does, indeed, have plans for such a contingency.
So what's the NFL's plan if the worst happens?For starters, the National Football League has. . .somehow. . .decided to divide this potential tragedy into two different categories.
If an incident of some sort causes a team to lose fewer than fifteen players, it is classed as a "near disaster." In the case of a near disaster, there are very few special rules that actually come into play. No special draft or anything like that is held, but the team in question does get first priority on waiver claims through the end of the regular season. If one of the players that the team lost is a quarterback, they are allowed to draft up to two quarterbacks from all of the teams that have three quarterbacks available. (Each of the teams that has three quarterbacks available can protect two of them.) Any of the quarterbacks taken in this scenario are returned to their original teams at the end of the season.
If a team loses fifteen or more players because of an incident, it is classified as a "disaster." When this occurs, the first thing that happens is the Commissioner's decision about whether or not the team's decision should continue. If the decision is made to continue the team's season, the "near disaster" rules are used. If the team's season is cancelled, they are immediately awarded the first pick in the next year's college draft. There is also a special "Disaster Draft" that is held, similar to an expansion draft, where the rest of the teams in the NFL each get to protect 32 players on their roster, and the team that suffered the disaster is allowed to draft players from those that are left unprotected.
Obviously, everybody hopes that these plans never actually have to be used for anything. But, if it's something that you've ever wondered about in the past, there's your answer.