News 8 Investigates: Student athletes: Who’s at risk?

Student-athletes who have less access to athletic trainers are 50 percent more likely to have a concussion misdiagnosed. That is according to a 2018 study, led by a UW-Madison professor, that looked at hundreds of schools in the state of Wisconsin.

Friday nights consist of 48 minutes of passion, pride and physical power. In sports, there is a risk for every student-athlete during each second the clock ticks.

That’s the reason Wisconsin Athletic Trainers Hall of Famer Joe La Mere has been guarding the sidelines for the past 26 years. La Mere is in charge of his own team at Gundersen Health System.

He leads a team of trainers tasked with the responsibility of caring for student-athletes.

“We do a lot of off-field training with our staff looking at all the current concepts of injuries and seeing what is out there,” La Mere said. “We work with the school personnel, their strength coaches and
coaches, so they can learn how to prevent injuries as well.”

Since 1987, Gundersen Health System trainers have worked with schools in southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. Before every fall sports season when football begins, these trainers put together their own game plan to get to as many practices and games as they can.

“We cover about 2,100 events per year,” La Mere said.

Contracts with schools are based on what local school districts can afford. Schools with a larger athletic budget buy more access to trainers. A 2018 study published by the National Athletic Trainers Association looked at approximately 2,400 student-athletes ages 14-18 in 400 schools across
Wisconsin.

The study found only one-third of those schools have an athletic trainer available for 35 to 40 hours a week. The next third has a trainer on staff for 10-15 hours per week and one-third of those schools have an athletic trainer available for an hour and a half or no trainer at all.

According to the study, student-athletes who attended schools with less access to athletic trainers, mostly in rural and inner-city areas, are 50 percent more likely to have a sports-related concussion go unidentified, unassessed or mismanaged.

Most schools within the La Crosse area have a trainer on campus for at least two days a week plus games. However, the playing field is still not level for every district.

News 8 Investigates reviewed athletic trainer contract data from Gundersen Health System. That data from 27 schools in our area shows high schools with more than 400 students have a trainer on campus on five days a week on average plus games.

Schools with fewer than 400 had an athletic trainer on campus for three days on average plus games. Ten of those schools only see a trainer two days a week plus games. To combat the fact trainers can’t be at every practice at some schools trainers educate coaches and school staff to help identify a severe injury when a trainer is not available.

Dr. Jacob Erickson, lead Sports Medicine Physician at Mayo Clinic Health System says coaches can help, but be he says they shouldn’t be expected to do it all.

“The coach obviously their priority is running a practice,” Erickson said. “They are coordinating a group of coaches. They have a lot on their minds and a lot of things to monitor. Their focus at looking at the
practices is going to be a little different from the eyes of a trainer.”

If a concussion is missed and a student-athlete continues to play they could suffer another concussion and be at risk for long-term health problems.

“When someone has multiple concussions over their life we can see some long-term declines in cognitive function, memory, and just the way they feel. People can develop chronic headaches,” Erickson said.

Wisconsin State Law requires all youth athletic organizations to educate coaches, student-athletes and parents on the risks of concussions. Parents have to sign off on the concussion info they are given before their child can play.

The law also requires an athlete to be removed from a game or practice if they have signs and symptoms of a concussion. That athlete can’t return to action until they pass the concussion protocol.

Erickson says if high school sports are going to be a priority, safety needs to be a priority too.

“Someone made the reference, ‘You wouldn’t drop your kid off at the pool if there wasn’t a lifeguard there.'”

Wisconsin law does not create any liability against a person if a concussion is missed. The rules have changed to protect student-athletes.

The WIAA changed a rule a few years ago eliminating full-contact activities during the first week of preseason practice and limiting contact during the season. That helped cut down on the number of concussions by 57 percent.

When it comes to improving access, officials behind the athletic trainers study said it will take legislative efforts at the state and national levels to come up with equal standards.

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