Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, all schools from the NCAA’s “Power Five” conferences must ensure health care providers have final say over when student-athletes can return from concussions and other injuries.
That marks just one of a number of changes that members from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference’s 65 member institutions approved during the NCAA Convention in San Antonio earlier this month. Under the new policy, universities must “establish an administrative structure that provides independent medical care and affirms the unchallengeable autonomous authority of primary athletics health care providers to determine medical management and return-to-play decisions related to student-athletes.”
In other words: If a team physician or athletic trainer rules a student-athlete out for a medical reason, a coach can’t override them under any circumstances. Prior to enacting this legislation, health care providers were able to hold student-athletes out “for health and safety reasons,” but the rules did “not address medical management of student-athletes,” according to the Big 12’s original proposal.
“I believe it’s the most important piece of legislation in the history of the NCAA,” said Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, to ESPN.com’s Max Olson.
Under the new policy, each school must also “designate a director of medical services to oversee the institutions’ athletic health care administration and delivery.” That ensures no coach serves as the primary supervisor for any health care official and thus has no say in the hiring, firing or retention of such providers.
Why does this legislation matter for current and future collegiate student-athletes? If one is to believe Karl Kapchinski, a long-time athletic trainer at Texas A&M University, health care professionals haven’t always had independence from coaches when making return-to-play decisions.
In a segment on Tuesday’s edition of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Kapchinski admitted to having felt pressured to clear a player to return before he felt the player was healthy enough to do so, according to a transcript the network provided to Suzanne Halliburton of the Austin American-Statesman. In particular, he claimed A&M coaches tended “to put pressure on you to get good players back.”
“While we’re considered part of the medical staff in a lotta cases, the head coach just sees you basically, in some cases, being subservient to his situation,” Kapchinski said.
Power Five schools also weighed the idea of changing the amount of time student-athletes are allowed to devote to athletics on a weekly basis, but ultimately opted to table those talks for the time being to develop “research-based proposals,” according to Michelle Brutlag Hosick of NCAA.org. At the conference’s Division I Issues Forum, the association’s Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee presented results from a survey about the time demands on student-athletes, which helped spur these discussions.
According to the survey, Division I student-athletes often spend anywhere from four to nine hours on athletics during competition days, but those days only count as three hours spent on the sport currently. NCAA rules prohibit athletes from spending more than 20 hours on their sport in a given week, but loopholes such as the competition-day time amounts may be allowing them to exceed that. Thus, the committee recommended abolishing the weekly limit and instead moving to a daily cap “examined on a sport-by-sport basis.”
“One thing that would help in this whole issue of time demands is just a recognition of the time that we do spend,” said Rachel Scott, co-vice chair of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, to Hosick. “We have this 20-hour rule, but are we actually spending 20 hours doing countable athletically-related activities? Maybe, maybe not.”
Student-athletes also expressed their desire not to be required to travel to a competition site during their one required day off from athletics every week. In addition, they preferred to have a two-week break from athletics at the end of a sport’s season, according to the survey.
Rather than enacting any particular changes at the annual convention, the Power Five conferences instead opted to work with the rest of Division I to research potential tweaks to playing-time requirements. They’ll vote on at least three proposals related to time demands in January 2017.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.