Wanted: Sports Docs

More injuries, lawsuits make trainers key players.

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In January, Spencer Frost broke his leg playing basketball for his high school team in Waterford, Wisconsin. "I felt it pop and snap," the 17-year-old Waterford Union High School athlete recalls. "I was in enough pain that I rolled around on the floor for a while."

No medical personnel were on hand--the home team, Wilmount High, didn't have a trainer at the game--so Spencer's coach evaluated the injury. The teenager says he asked to go to a hospital and to call his mother; instead, he says, the coach wrapped his leg, helped him onto the team's bus, and let him off back at school, where his mother picked him up.

Seven pins, a metal plate, and a month's absence from school later, Spencer and his family have filed a $10 million negligence claim against Waterford Union High, Wilmount High, the state education department, and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Legal battles over serious school sports injuries are becoming increasingly common, say experts on school sports, many of whom are advising districts to hire certified trainers to protect athletes from injury and schools from liability. Trainers typically work with athletes to prevent injuries, says Tad Blackburn, an executive officer with the American Physical Therapy Association in La Crosse, Wisconsin. "But also the trainer is there to do triage and to refer the athlete to a physician if necessary."

Ironically, Spencer's high school has a certified trainer. But he does not travel to away games with the basketball team. Waterford Union's principal, Larry Berg, says Spencer's coach followed school policy and had done nothing wrong in treating the teenager's injury. He declined further comment on the case, as did officials with the 900-student Waterford Union High School District.

No national statistics exist on the number of certified trainers employed by schools, but experts say the profession is growing as the level of performance and competition at high schools increases. About 3 million children experience sports- or recreation-related injuries each year, says the National Safe Kids Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Twenty percent of students participating in school sports and other athletic activities are injured, and one-fourth of those injuries are considered serious.

Michelle Klein, executive director of the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation Inc. in Washington, argues that high school athletic programs--especially those with football and other contact sports should have an athletic trainer. Though some school officials contend that trainers are too costly, Klein says, "We feel that safety needs to be the number one priority."

"Safety is paramount," echoes Dr. Judy Young, executive director of the Reston, Virginia-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education. "You can't have 14- to 18-year-olds sacrificing their bodies for a game."

Many school administrators agree with Klein and Young, saying they can't afford not to have a trainer to ensure student safety and offer some liability protection. "The athletic trainer is the most important position in the program," says Bob Fisher, athletic director at Rockland High School in Rockland, Massachusetts, where a trainer works at least three hours a day for $18,000 a year. "It has to be budgeted into the school. It would be the last position I would cut."

All four high schools in the 21,000-student Parkway school system in Chesterfield, Missouri, have had athletic trainers for more than a decade. Last year, the investment more than paid off, according to Mike Gohn, the district's athletic director. During a district baseball tournament, a player sliding into home plate collided with the catcher, leaving the base runner with a broken neck. "Having someone there made all the difference," says Gohn. "I can't put a price tag on that feeling of comfort."

In Fairfax County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., all 23 high schools have certified trainers on staff. "Our main concern is the overall, proper, on-site, immediate care of injuries," says Jon Almquist, training specialist for the 156,000-student district. Under Almquist, Fairfax has devised a system that tracks everything from the severity of injuries to the number of ice packs used by trainers. "I think we are more aware of the potential for catastrophe," he says.

Some schools that cannot afford to hire their own sports trainer contract with local hospitals for such help. Health-South Braintree Hospital in Braintree, Massachusetts, for example, provides athletic trainers to 16 area schools. The cost per school runs from $10,500 to $25,700 a year.

For schools in rural areas with no major medical facilities, an on-site trainer may be out of the question. But schools still need to take measures to prevent injuries, says Dr. Steven Rice, a pediatrician and sports-medicine specialist at the Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center in Neptune, New Jersey. "You need to look at quality of coaches, conditions of field and courts, condition of equipment, and overall safety issues."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 26-28

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Wanted: Sports Docs
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