Like many Montgomery County high school football teams, Blair used to field a makeshift medical staff. Sometimes an assistant coach would tend to the injured player. Other times, a volunteer doctor would examine the athlete, according to third-year Coach Andrew Fields.
“It was kind of a free-for-all,” Fields said.
But the sideline dynamics at the Silver Spring school changed last season, with Montgomery County placing certified athletic trainers at each of its 25 public high schools. The health care professionals worked about 20-30 hours per week, patrolling the sidelines during home games of all sports and assisting the athletes before and during practices.
The program, which launched at about nine schools in 2013-14, has been met with approval by coaches and parents concerned about player safety, Montgomery County Director of Athletics Duke Beattie said. That’s why this past spring, the county agreed to three-year contracts with local vendors — Adventist HealthCare Physical Health & Rehabilitation, MedStar Health, Pivot Physical Therapy and Maryland Orthopedic Specialists — that extend the program through 2017-18, according to Beattie. The county is paying $20,000 annually per trainer, an increase from what Beattie called a “highly discounted” $10,000 in 2013-14.
“There was a culture, an attitude about athletic safety that was sort of stuck in an old era,” said Tom Hearn, a Montgomery County sports safety advocate. “The fact that they’re in it now is hopefully a sign of better attention.”
The program has put a spotlight on player health and safety, specifically head injuries, leading more athletes to go through concussion protocol. According to Montgomery County Public Schools data, Quince Orchard football had a county-high 15 concussions diagnosed in 2014 and Sherwood had 11. Blair had two. While not a solution to concussion problems in all sports, having trained professionals on the sideline is an improvement, said Hearn, who runs the ConcussionMCPS Twitter account.
The 25 Montgomery County football teams had a total of 116 diagnosed concussions in 2014-15 compared to 100 in 2013-14, according to data provided by Montgomery County Public Schools. There were 364 diagnosed concussions across all scholastic athletics in 2014-15 compared to 244 in 2013-14, according to MCPS.
Fields said that in addition to improving player safety, the program has taken pressure off of coaches, allowing them to shed some of their medical responsibilities. Though coaches have training experience — all paid stipend coaches are required to take safety courses and must be CPR certified — they said it doesn’t compare to that of the health care professionals.
“It makes us feel a little more comfortable as a coach, knowing that we have someone certified in that area that can treat those kids,” said Northwood Coach Joe Allen, who led Churchill the previous six seasons.
Athletic trainers can be found on the sidelines of most schools across the area. Anne Arundel, Arlington, Charles, Howard and Prince William counties have athletic trainers at each of their schools, while Fairfax County has two at each school. D.C. public schools has one athletic trainer at every school with a football team. St. Mary’s County schools are given $10,000 to spend on athletic training. Prince George’s and Calvert counties have no athletic trainers.
During games in Montgomery County, the athletic trainers are provided by the host schools, and when multiple home teams are playing simultaneously — which doesn’t happen regularly — they’ll assist with the sports where there is greater injury risk, and are available to provide support for the other games, said Laura Hartman, an athletic trainer at Quince Orchard. According to the MCPS Web site, the athletic trainers are also responsible for assisting with injury prevention, injury evaluation, immediate care, treatment and rehabilitation, among other areas.
“It just takes something else off your plate,” Fields said. “Instead of worrying about taping kids or kids getting injured or concussion protocols, you have a professional in that area that takes care of it.”