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A Q&A with former NFL equipment director, Jim Lake

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Jim Lake spent over three decades climbing the ranks of the equipment department with the former St. Louis, now Los Angeles Rams. Having overseen all aspects of equipment, uniforms, apparel, and protective gear to create an environment of optimal performance, Lake shares insight into the role the equipment staff plays in player well-being, safety and infection prevention while shedding light on their decision-making process and common industry practices.

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Q: Knowing that equipment managers are often among the longest tenured employees of an NFL team, how do they balance time-tested methods against bringing in new, innovative technologies?

A: “I think you have to constantly challenge yourself to keep an open mind, and accept new ideas, and be proactive. It starts with mindset: having that open mind and accepting new ideas is the big thing. Knowing that you don’t know everything, accepting new ideas, and letting people in your doors.

In the NFL, it’s always a time crunch; there’s never enough time. There’s only 24 hours in a day and you could probably work a 30-hour day and still not have everything done. You have to be able to internally justify, ‘It’s ok for me to take this time away to maybe learn something new.'”

Q: What are the challenges that the equipment staff faces when it comes to handling laundry, the laundry process, etc.?

A: “Some of the biggest issues are the volume and the time, and just being able to process it. Those machines start very early in the morning and they run all day. Each washer is pumping out 20 loads a day. There’s always some laundry to be done. The hard part is getting it all done and having the man-power to process it.

When introducing something new, the first thing that people ask about: ‘How much more time and labor is this going to take to my process and to implement?”

For example, in your home washing machine, you may have a sanitize setting – it’s like a two and a half hour wash cycle. There’s no time for a two and a half hour wash cycle in the NFL. A five minute to ten-minute addition per load can really slow you down over a 12 -hour day when you’re doing load after load after load. That little bit of time is something that is always on the front of your mind when you’re talking to new people.”

Q: Describe the role that equipment staff does (or should) play in protecting player health and safety. How can they serve as advocates for player safety?

A: “They have to play a huge role. At the end of the day it’s a partnership; everyone is on the same team. While it’s led by your medical staff who are instituting the protocols, you are the department that is facilitating so many things and distributing so many things to the players and the staff. Whether its managing the locker room space, disinfecting locker room space, making sure your laundry is clean – it needs to be a good relationship between your equipment department and your medical staff. The equipment staff collaborates with the medical staff in setting the protocols.”

Q: The pandemic has every team thinking critically about their facility’s cleanliness. Pre-pandemic, what tools were typically in the equipment staff’s arsenal for infection mitigation, if any, and what gaps do you see?

A: “We have been fighting Staph and MRSA for years. As an equipment manager, I was responsible for the locker room, for surfaces, for all the cloth items. We would use antimicrobial soaps in our washers. We would use foggers and ozone machines, fog daily if not two to three times a day depending on the time of the year. When a player had the flu, or the cold, we would take down everything that player had, rewash, fog, wipe, disinfect everything. These little bugs hit you harder when you are a close knit group. If we wore shoulder pads, we would disinfect them with antimicrobial spray. Sometimes, we were fogging three times a day and we had a protocol of wiping down all our hard surfaces twice a day.

That being said, there is still a gap. How do you keep clothing clean and free of germs all the time? Once the washers are done, drying, and the clothes come out, they are contaminated instantly. Even when you’re fogging something, as soon as you turn that machine off and that surface is not being sprayed anymore, it’s going to contaminate immediately. There is a gap in the circle that needs to be filled.”

Q: It seems really challenging to elevate beyond all that activity, and yet there is an expectation and need to elevate beyond that.

A: “Whether it’s the common cold, or MRSA, or Staph, you’re always in fear of getting your guys sick because you are together seven days a week. It’s a group of 100 guys together, and everyone is tired. Your bodies do get worn down. You’re talking about a very physical and grueling season where you do walk around drained pretty well which opens you up to getting sick. You want to be in the forefront of technology and new products. If there was something out there, we were gung-ho to look into it.

What can they do now to do even better? Today, we have new ways of closing the gap in infection control. Take the Applied Silver SilvaClean technology, for instance. The one thing we weren’t able to implement was self-cleaning clothing and cloth items. It’s not the silver bullet, it’s not the one thing that’s going to save you from everything, but it is a critical part of an overall loop that ultimately improves the overall efficiency.

You go to a locker and there’s 20 cloth items hanging. Just imagine your closet – do you think if you went in there with a sprayer that it’d be effective? When you have 20 blouses hanging together and they’re tight, there’s not much space, right? Same thing in a locker room. But if those cloth items were charged with silver when they went through the wash and became antimicrobial fabrics, then there is not need to fog. They’re already disinfecting, and when it comes in contact with a virus or something it’s going to interrupt the transmission, and that’s the key.

Once the pandemic is over or we get more answers about how to attack it as a society, do the measures we’re taking go away? You still need to disinfect your cloth items. You still need to disinfect your soft items. You still need to wipe down the hard surfaces. You still need to be diligent because even if the pandemic is taken care of, you still have issues with Staph and MRSA and even the common cold. A flu bug can wipe you out as a team.

If you look back last season, the New England Patriots took two planes to a game. They had everyone that had the flu on one plane, and everybody else that was healthy on another plane. You’re talking multiple hotel floors. That’s a reactionary way of dealing with it. I like to be proactive. I’d rather be proactive and say, ‘We did everything we could’ than saying, ‘Well I guess we could’ve done that, let’s jump on that now.’”

Q: What challenges are specific to being on the road?

A: “The new space you’re in – you weren’t there the day before, you don’t know how clean it is, and you really don’t have the time to disinfect. You have to take their word for it that they disinfected. You land, you unpack, you go to sleep, you get up, and the players are there. There’s really no time to go in, disinfect a whole room, then set up.”

Q: With COVID there’s a huge public health information push. Do you think historically there has been sufficient infection prevention education within NFL locker rooms?

A: “When we first started to address the Staph and MRSA issues, yes, there was some. As the equipment managers, we were getting education from our medical side and maybe from the league as well. 20 years ago, you didn’t know anything about it. It was more of a smell test: you were just using the soap that made the fabrics feel good, the clothes smell good.

It’s a contact sport, so it’s very common for you to take a shower after practice and then, ‘Oh man, I have a cut on my arm.’ Back in the day it was, ‘Oh throw, some soap on it, it’ll scab over, you’re fine.’ Instead of today, where there’s a special soap that’s in the shower, so if you get a cut on your arm or leg or somewhere, you wash it with this very effective soap for that open wound and then you go get it dressed. ‘If you get a cut, let’s cover it. If starts looking like it’s red around, this is not good.’ There was definitely education for the players on that front.”

Q: What are some of the key new trends you see in the industry regarding hygiene, health, and safety?

A: “You’re talking about disinfecting in your HVAC systems. They have mechanisms that are killing everything as the air flows through so it doesn’t move pathogens that are airborne from Point A to Point B. There are room foggers or disinfectants, room systems where every night before you go to bed you turn on the machine and it runs for an hour and it disinfects. New technologies like SilvaClean are game-changing because it kills pathogens on clothing and prevents them from spreading throughout the locker room. That’s closing gap with the cloth items and stopping pathogens moving from Point A to Point B.”