4 ways to put student-athlete safety first

Former athletic trainer Andrew Massey is an athletics risk consultant for Relation Insurance and serves as an ATC spotter for the NFL.

All intercollegiate athletics programs come with an inherent amount of risk, which exists despite abundant safety precautions and guidelines. However, in recent years there has been a tragic uptick in sports-related injuries and deaths linked to conditioning activities where coaches and other athletic personnel failed to follow proper guidelines for sports training and competition.

In this landscape, it’s critically important for universities to review their programs, safety precautions, and priorities in order to help reduce risk and protect student athletes. While not an exhaustive list, here are four key areas that athletics programs should assess when working to implement and maintain safety-centered athletic cultures.

1. Create mechanisms to review all care

To establish a safety-centered culture, university athletics programs should implement mechanisms that review every aspect of the institution’s care delivered to students—from evaluating adherence to necessary guidelines to analyzing whether all programming and activities prioritize the protection of athletes. These risk-mitigating internal mechanisms should be transparent and regularized (ideally conducted at least annually).

Universities should also develop an independent review group to evaluate their athletic program from a health and safety perspective on a recurring basis, which will help ensure an unbiased assessment and help flag any areas that internal stakeholders might accidentally overlook.

2. Develop a model that ensures autonomous, independent medical care

It is imperative that university athletics programs have a model of care that vests autonomous medical management decisions in primary athletics health care providers (such as team physicians and athletic trainers). These providers, their decision-making related to the health and safety of athletes, and their delivery of health care should be ensured freedom from outside, non-medical influences.

Universities should develop an independent review group to evaluate their athletic program from a health and safety perspective.

In an ideal setting, this model would include an administrative/reporting structure that preserves this autonomy and further increases the chances that the best interests of athletes are put first.

To support this model of care, universities should also ensure that everyone in the athletics program has a shared philosophy and is working together for the well-being of the athlete. This common interest can help to bridge any gaps in communication and keep care athlete-centered.

3. Determine the appropriate level of insurance

Intercollegiate athletics insurance is a valuable means of protection for both universities and student-athletes, so schools should have a coverage plan that meets their unique needs and fits with the insurance requirements of national organizations such as the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA. University athletics programs should work with their insurance consultant to find coverage solutions that help to mitigate risk, contain costs, and reduce the amount of administrative burden on staff.

Read: Student-athlete success centers provide holistic support

It’s important to note that most athletics-related claim payments go through student-athletes’ primary insurance first and some student-athletes may be under- or un-insured. Low or limited benefit levels can influence the level of care students receive (as well as negatively impact your institution’s basic athletic insurance premiums), so consider using an insurance verification service to help keep student-athletes safe by ensuring they have primary medical insurance that meets their needs.

4. Keep up with association guidelines and procedures

All universities should keep in mind that governing bodies and associations continuously update their legislation, guidelines, and effective practices for the protection of student-athletes. One key way to help prevent future sports-related incidents is to pay close attention to all new association-issued guidelines and recommendations. Someone in the athletics program—for NCAA schools, that would be the designated Health Care Administrator—should be responsible for monitoring these updates, and universities should regularly review the process by which new guidelines are communicated and implemented to ensure timeliness and adherence.

No matter what precautions are put into place, there is always a chance that something will go wrong. Such is the nature of intercollegiate athletics. However, universities can significantly decrease this risk by reviewing their program through the lens of these four topics and by always keeping the health and wellness of their student athletes at the center of everything they do.

Andrew Massey’s career in intercollegiate athletics spans three decades, including Director of Athletic Training at Tulane University, head athletic trainer at Appalachian State University, and head athletic trainer at Wofford College. He is now an Athletics Risk Consultant for Relation Insurance and serves as an ATC Spotter for the NFL.

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