When the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American Medical Society for Sports Medicine met for the second annual Collaborative Solutions for Safety in Sport symposium at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, the groups focused on uniform reform of outdated policies in order to curb an epidemic that resulted in 50 high school student-athlete deaths in 2015.
The difficulty comes in lobbying all 50 state athletic associations separately and trying to enact meaningful change without a nationwide governing body that can create universal policies, according to two studies to be published in the NATA’s Journal of Athletic Training next month.
“I’m certain that there was some grumbling going on about having to change the way we’ve been doing business for some time at football practice,” an anonymous athletic trainer from Georgia said in a study entitled, “Implementing Health and Safety Policy Changes at the High School Level From a Leadership Perspective,” penned by four doctors from the Departments of Kinesiology at Temple University, University of Connecticut and Northern Illinois University working in coordination.
“Well, it was actually mixed feelings,” a New Jersey trainer said of policy change obstacles he faced from state association officials, most of whom are coaches or former coaches. “But I think it was just chaos that first year, for them [coaches] trying to understand what’s going on and … once they [the coaches] understood it, trying to accept it.”
Ninety percent of sudden deaths in sports result from four causes — cardiac arrest, heat stroke, head injuries and exertional sickling, according to a study entitled, “Sport Safety Policy Changes: Saving Lives and Protecting Athletes,” written by health professionals from UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute and the University of Washington’s Department of Family Medicine. The key point from that study:
Although sudden death from the aforementioned causes is not 100 percent preventable, the implementation of evidence-based safety policies such as emergency planning and access to automated external defibrillators (AEDs), heat acclimatization, instruction on proper tackling techniques (such as the ‘‘Heads Up Football’’ educational program), and sickle cell trait (SCT) screening in targeted populations can dramatically reduce overall risk. American football presents a unique risk profile for head injuries, EHS, and exertional sickling, which have driven many of the policy changes, but best practices for sport safety and emergency planning are relevant across all sports.
Considering the 50 high school student deaths and thousands of other preps who suffered long-term injury last year alone, you’d think lobbying for rule changes would be a relatively simple process, but resistance to that change and cost, among other reasons, make it more difficult. So, the NATA and AMSSM boiled their meeting down to four easy solutions every state association should adopt:
- Create an emergency action plan in collaboration with coaches, athletic trainers, other medical professionals and local and campus safety officials.
- Have athletic trainers on staff: athletic trainers play a critical role in preventing sudden death in sport such as prevention, diagnosis, emergency care and treatment.
- Acquire and place automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on school campuses and at sporting facilities for immediate access in the case of a cardiac emergency.
- Ensure that athletes acclimatize progressively to training demands and environmental conditions for optimal safety. Conditioning should be phased in gradually: the first seven to 10 days of any new cycle should be considered transitional. Exercise and conditioning should not be used as punishment.
The first and fourth suggestion require no additional funding, while the second and third seem like no-brainers to build into a school district’s budget. After all, saving one life is well worth the cost of one or several AEDs — roughly between $1,500 and two grand apiece. And it’s hard to believe only 37 percent of high schools nationwide employ a full-time trainer, at least according to the NATA.
Considering some schools are spending $60 million on football stadiums, it’s hard to imagine the large majority of school districts can’t pony up to meet these rather elementary safety precautions. Quite honestly, that’s the least every state athletic association should be demanding at this point.