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Under the Microscope - Athletic Trainers Increasing but Coverage Still Varies

Samantha Kummerer

From Friday night football games to Saturday volleyball matches, a new figure is taking a spot on the sidelines.

According to a 2015 study by the Korey Stringer Institute, 70 percent of public secondary schools nationwide have access to an athletic trainer. That total is up from 1994 when only 35 percent of high schools reported having access to an athletic trainer.

“Ten, fifteen years ago they probably associated a trainer with a personal trainer or something of that sort where now they know if you’re a certified medical athletic trainer you’re there for a medical purpose. I think that awareness has helped our profession and they kind of know who you are and what you’re there for,” said Stefanie West, a contracted athletic trainer at Hickman High School.

For Missouri Athletic Trainers’ Association president Kitty Newsham, a large part of the increase in access stems from the increase awareness of the dangers of concussions and sudden cardiac death.

According the University of Pittsburgh's Brain Trauma Research Center, more than 62,000 concussions occur each year in high school contact sports.

“People are seeing a need for it and once they have someone there who can take care of this it takes the pressure off of the coaches, it takes the pressure off of the administrators and it reduces their liability,” Newsham said.

Athletic trainers are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of an injury often before it occurs. In the absence of an athletic trainer coaches and school administrators are called to make immediate medical decisions.

“It’s really nice to have somebody like that come it versus like a coach or an administrator making that decision, so I think it does give a comfort to the families in our community knowing that we have that service,” Southern Boone School District activities director Pat Lacy said.

While the access is increasing nationally, Newsham said only about half of the schools in Missouri have access to an athletic trainer regularly.

“Kids act so differently when their hurt, some are very emotional, some are not emotional, some just try to be a tough person to get through it and being there everyday you get a better handle of that. Being there every day you’re better at injury prevention, being there everyday you can follow up and make sure that their doing good rehabilitation to get over their injury ,” Newsham said.

Columbia Public Schools has more than 1,000 high school student athletes. The district contracts with Peak Sports and Spine Physical Therapy to offer an athletic trainer at each high school everyday for practices and games. 

Credit Samantha Kummerer / KBIA

“When athletic trainers are in that community and in that school long term you tend to get that because you have brothers that come through, sisters, you’ve treated, you know, the whole family that type of thing and they get to know you and have a trust factor. So when you get to know someone that long they do get engrained in that community a little bit,” West said.

Newsham said some schools throughout mid-Missouri only employ trainers for high collision sports.

Newsham said she thinks there is definitely an advantage to having someone who really knows the students rather than someone who is just there on game days.

But for some districts a little is better than nothing. Pricing of athletic trainers and the size of the school are factors that carry weight for districts.

“I think schools are scrambling to afford it and there are some creative models out there that if they look beyond the barriers they might see some possibilities where they could find some funding to employ an athletic trainer,” Newsham said.

At Southern Boone School District athletic trainers from PEAK Sport and Spine are at home football and soccer games at both the high school and middle school level, along with a doctor on the field for varsity football games.

With only 250 student athletes compared to CPS’s 1,000, Lacy agrees that cost is a huge part of the decision.

“Right now we could have nine different sports practicing and having a trainer at everything is somewhat hard to do at this point financially especially at really small schools even smaller than us,” Lacy said.

Lacy said its contact includes an athletic trainer aiding in a lot of preseason physicals at the school which helps pay for the contract.

“People will say, ‘Is it really worth spending your money on?’ But I think most people say yeah, you’d rather error on the side of caution than not… like everything we feel like if you have one incident that’s one more than you want to have happen and its really nice to have someone there you know can provide medical service quick,” Lacy said.

Credit Samantha Kummerer / KBIA

While Lacy said right now the trainers can’t cover everything, he predicts the community will come to expect trainers at every sport.

Newsham said that’s a great goal, but it will take time for the profession to get that much awareness.

“You wish that it would just be the right thing to do, but I think what is going to drive some of it is some of the litigation where schools are being sued for student athletes going back to play too soon or missing some events,” Newsham said. 

Michaela Tucker is a Minneapolis native currently studying broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri. She is also a co-founder of KBIA’s partner program Making Waves, a youth radio initiative that empowers Columbia Public Schools students to share their stories.