While the NCAA has ramped up efforts to keep school’s sports medicine staff separate from their programs’ and coaches’ influence, a new ESPN report raises concerns that several schools are still violating NCAA policy — putting athletes’ medical care at risk.
The “Outside the Lines” report on Tuesday highlighted potential issues at Texas A&M and Tennessee, among others.
NCAA rules, implemented in 2016, required sports medicine staff at universities to have “unchallengeable authority” over medical treatment of student-athletes and the decision of when they are cleared to play. It also prohibits coaches from firing medical staff themselves in order to ensure athletes’ health takes priority.
“The coach must be completely de-coupled from medical decision-making,” an NCAA briefing document states, via ESPN, “and primary athletics health care providers must be in an environment in which making such decisions are free of any threat from coaches.”
NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline said that the NCAA has received multiple reports citing violations of the new rules, but that there were “fewer than 10 across the country.” He also declined to say if Texas A&M or others mentioned in the report were being investigated officially.
“It’s not like it’s flooding enforcement, but they’re in there,” Hainline said, via ESPN.
A rushed recovery under Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee
Former Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. was sidelined in November 2017 with a knee injury when the Volunteers fired coach Butch Jones and replaced him with Jeremy Pruitt.
Kirkland said that his recovery picked up very fast when he came back in January after Pruitt and his new staff had truly taken over, and that it made him “very uncomfortable.”
“I was extremely nervous and didn’t know how my leg was going to react,” Kirkland said, via ESPN. “I’m wearing a big brace. Still swelling, still in pain, still not able to do the things that I’m normally used to.”
Kirkland then re-injured his knee during a team workout in February, and needed another surgery. He ended up playing that season, but decided to end his career after their final game in 2018.
“If I had more time for my knee, I feel like I would’ve been healthier long term, you know,” Kirkland said, via ESPN. “Probably would’ve healed up. Probably would’ve still been playing ball, honestly.”
Kirkland, however, said he didn’t blame Pruitt for his injury — even though he does believe the coaching turnover led to his second surgery.
Former sports medicine staff at Tennessee, however, said that Pruitt pressured athletic trainers and interfered with how they managed his players. At times, he even yelled at them to stop immediately tending to injured athletes, according to ESPN.
“He wanted us to wait until he decided it was OK. He thought that the players were too soft and sometimes they needed a second to get up and shake it off. But that’s not his decision to make,” a former employee told ESPN. “Jeremy had enough juice behind him to where, if he really wanted to, he could get things his way. If you invest this much money in a coach, that’s their guy.”
Pruitt, per the report, also had then-head football athletic trainer John Burnside and a pair of team doctors fired.
“It was foot on the throat, right off the bat,” a former employee told ESPN. “A lot of pressure, and pretty much letting us know pretty early on that he didn’t want any of us to be there and he was looking for a reason to let everyone go and bring on his own staff.”
Jimbo Fisher, Buzz Williams each hire new staff at Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher was hired at Texas A&M in January 2018, signing a massive 10-year deal after a stint at Florida State.
Upon his arrival, per the report, Texas A&M authorized the firing of both its associate athletic director overseeing athletic training and its head football athletic trainer. The firing letters, which were signed by then-athletic director Scott Woodward, said that Fisher “will want to hire his own staff, as in the industry standard,” per the report.
“This is not the industry standard today, and is not consistent with independent medical care legislation,” Hainline told ESPN.
“It is not right that coaches come in, and they bring in their medical team, and … they have that sort of control over that medical team.”
That practice wasn’t limited to football in College Station, either.
Buzz Williams was hired as Texas A&M’s new basketball coach in April. It wasn’t long before Matt Doles, the men’s basketball athletic trainer, was fired so Williams could hire his former athletic trainer from Virginia Tech.
Doles had been with the Aggies for 14 years.
“This is an example where that understanding is not consistent with what we had put out,” Hainline said, via ESPN. “So even if it’s just … one, that’s too many.”
Texas A&M, however, pushed back against the NCAA rules, and team physician Dr. J.P. Bramhall said he considered them only as “guidelines.”
"Persons in staff positions at Texas A&M are at-will employees,” Texas A&M said in a statement, via ESPN. “Administrative and employment decisions are the responsibility of Athletic Administration. Dr. Bramhall and/or our medical staff are consulted and [sic] is involved in the screening process related to hiring of athletic training staff. The Director of Sports Medicine analyzes and has ultimate oversight of the health and wellness of our student-athletes."
Fisher ended up hiring Dan Jacobi away from Mississippi State for the head football job. That decision, one former trainer told ESPN, was “100%” made by Fisher.
“I never felt like we put a guy out there who was going to do harm to himself by practicing or participating, but there were times when I felt like guys should have been held out longer,” the former trainer said.
“They gave Jimbo Fisher the keys to the city … especially when he was given the go-ahead to let go of the training staff and bring in his own guy. That is just more added pressure on the athletic trainer when they’re brought in. I think that was immediate from day one.”
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