San Diego State University

Is California Playing Games When It Comes to the Safety of High School Athletes?

If your child is injured playing a high school sport, are they in the best hands? In California, anyone can call themselves an athletic trainer, regardless of whether they are certified. They may have no clinical experience or even medical knowledge.

Athletic trainers are healthcare providers. They focus on the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of injuries. 

Few high schools in California have full-time athletic trainers and even more troubling, the trainers that are in place aren’t regulated. That means kids playing high school sports could be at great risk. 

NBC 7 Investigates analyzed 2016-2017 data from the California Interscholastic Foundation (CIF). The data shows only 30-percent of high schools in San Diego County have a full-time athletic trainer on staff. The majority only have athletic trainers during practices or games. One in four San Diego County high schools does not have an athletic trainer at all. 

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At Rancho Bernardo High School, if any players are injured during practice or a game, full-time Athletic Trainer Robbie Bowers is there to help. 

“You're talking about one of the most vulnerable populations we have: the youth athlete,” Bowers told NBC 7 Investigates. 

In addition to his high school work, Bowers sits on the board for the California Athletic Trainers Association (CATA). He’s also voluntarily certified by the organization. But without state regulations, organizations like CATA say anyone could potentially be an Athletic Trainer. 

“In some cases, they've lost the right to practice in other states and they can come to California and take a job, it's frightening,” Bowers said. 

NBC 7 Investigates learned about an incident that happened in 2015 at a high school in Temecula, California. 

According to a complaint filed with CATA, freshman football players for Chaparral High School had blisters on their hands after doing drills on the school’s astroturf field in intense heat. The school's Athletic Trainer drained all of their blisters using a pair of scissors and an alcohol wipe in between each player. The players were not bandaged after the blisters were drained. 

In response to NBC 7 Investigates’ questions about the incident, Laura Boss, a Public Information Officer for the Temecula Valley Unified School District said the incident was investigated as soon as it was brought to their attention and “appropriate actions were taken.” 

Boss added that the trainer is voluntarily certified through CATA and is currently still employed at Chaparral High School. 

In their complaint regarding the incident, parents and athletic trainers called the situation "unacceptable," but, there wasn't much that could be done. 

“We have no authority to revoke any kind of right to practice because there is none in California,” Bowers said. 

After analyzing San Diego County data from the 2016-2017 school year, one in four high schools have no athletic trainers on-staff.

CATA has tried to change the system in California for decades but their attempts have been unsuccessful. 

Senate Bill 3110, which would have licensed and regulated Athletic Trainers, was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown last year. CATA and other proponents attributed the loss to opposition and lobbying efforts from organizations such as the California Physical Therapy Association, Occupational Therapy Association of California, the California Nurses Association, and the California Academy of Physician Assistants. 

According to filings with the Secretary of State, all of those organizations had lobbied against Senate Bill 3110. 

No representative from those organizations would agree to an interview for NBC 7 Investigates’ reporting. 

Chris Reed, the Government Affairs Committee Chair for the California Physical Therapy Association said his organization is "not outright opposed" to licensing and regulating Athletic Trainers but argues past attempts at legislation were too lenient on Athletic Trainers, requiring only a minimal amount of education. 

“We absolutely agree that having a qualified professional on the sidelines is important to the safety and well-being of California based athletes,” Reed wrote. “However, the language of past bills introduced by CATA had nothing to do with athletes, sports, sports teams, or sports venues.” 

Reed continued, “Instead these bills were attempts to create a new type of healthcare provider with the freedom to work with any person for nearly any condition with essentially no oversight by physicians.” 

“I think there are other health care professions that may see athletic trainers as a threat onto their space,” said Eric Post, a Professor at San Diego State University. 

Post has been studying the issue of athletic trainers in high schools and in his research, he found schools with full-time athletic trainers were more likely to correctly diagnose long-term injuries, like concussions. 

Parent and coach Jeff Carpenter says parents should not assume their high school has an athletic trainer, and if they do, parents should ask about their credentials. 

“If you're going to a school that doesn't have a full-time trainer you should be talking to the administration, to the school about why don't we?” Carpenter advised.

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