New NCAA ruling further prioritizes athlete safety, ensuring gold standard of care from high school through college

Scott Sailor, president of National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

Scott Sailor, president of National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the latest column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.

Athlete safety should always be the No. 1 priority of any sports team or league – no matter the level of play, and especially in high school to ensure the athlete’s health and safety. To further this effort, the NCAA Autonomous 5 (also known as the Power 5) unanimously passed a ruling that gives an institution’s health care providers, specifically team physicians and athletic trainers, unchallenged and autonomous authority over an athlete’s care, including medical management and all return-to-play decisions.

This ensures that a high school athlete who has benefitted from best practices and safety protocols will now be guaranteed that at the college level in the Autonomous 5 programs.

Rest assured that these same discussions are occurring at secondary schools and athletic associations across the country. It’s only a matter of time before the same level of care will be expected by all high school student athletes and their parents.

For high school athletes who plan to play sports in college and are in the process of selecting a school, it’s a good idea to reach out to the athletic trainers in advance to find out what medical services they can expect to receive. It’s important to develop a relationship with the ATs at all levels so they can provide the best care for all student athletes.

This monumental ruling was voted on and passed by the Autonomous 5 – composed of the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 10 and Big 12 – on Jan. 15, 2016. The ruling also mandates an administrative structure independent of the coaching staff.

To help you understand the importance of this change, here are answers to questions you may have regarding the new ruling.

How did this change come about?

In 2013, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association brought together a number of sports and health care organizations to create recommendations for the health care of both high school and college athletes. The NCAA then used those guidelines to help create its own document specific to collegiate sports medicine, which is the foundation for this new ruling. This same NATA document is also available for state athletic associations and school districts to develop their own groundbreaking policies.

What’s changing?

Before the ruling, many schools already gave the sports medicine staff some authority over the athletes’ care. However, it didn’t always include the medical management of a player or return-to-play decision-making after an injury or illness. High school athletes considering Autonomous 5 schools for next year can now have peace of mind about the safety practices that are in place.

Now, the health care provider has the unchallenged authority to cancel or modify workouts for health and safety reasons and to determine the medical management of athletes, including when they’re safe to return to the field. Many high school programs already have this protocol in place, so this will be an easy transition.

Prior to the ruling, when unchallenged authority was given to the sports medicine team, it was through a spoken agreement based on personalities and relationships. By creating an administrative structure for independent medical care, schools are ensuring this authority won’t go away if personnel or relationships change.

Part of this administrative structure includes creating a director of medical services position. This person will be a medical provider – head athletic trainer or physician – who will be responsible for directing and supervising the care of student athletes. This element of the ruling ensures a coach isn’t the primary supervisor of the team’s health care personnel and doesn’t have hiring, retention or dismissal authority over them.

Ultimately, the intention of this change is to put the medical decision-making into the hands of the health care provider, eliminating the possibility of a coach – or even parents or athletes themselves – from overriding the authority of the medical team. By removing any potential conflicts of interest, everyone can be assured the safety and well-being of the athletes is the No. 1 priority. This structured checks-and-balances system takes it a step further, going beyond words and showing exactly how this independent medical line of authority operates.

What about schools and conferences that aren’t part of the Autonomous 5?

While the ruling is only mandatory for conferences in the Autonomous 5, many believe there will be a trickle-down effect, and this ruling could eventually become a standard in institutions throughout the United States, including secondary schools.

Ultimately, what does this mean for student athletes?

The implications of this ruling are more administrative, so college athletes probably will not notice any changes. The protection of the athlete is the primary concern of the athletic trainer and other members of the sports medicine team, and this ruling reinforces that. It also sets an example for high school athletic departments, where the administrative structure is not always similarly aligned.

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