New NCAA legislation to overhaul Power Five return-to-play protocol

Sophomore quarterback Chris Johnson suffer a concussion during the Baylor-Texas on Dec. 5, 2015. Photo credit: Stephen Nunnelee

The Power Five conferences passed new legislation one medical officer is calling the most important piece of safety legistlation in NCAA history on Jan. 15 during the NCAA Convention in San Antonio.

The new law guarantees medical personnel job security in return-to-play situations.

In other words, team medical staff cannot be threatened or fired if they prohibit a player from returning to the game, despite a coach’s desire for the player to return.

Although the law is being touted as a game-changer for the NCAA, Baylor athletics has had protection for its team medical staff since the 1990s, said Baylor head athletic trainer Mike Sims, calling the Bears pioneers when it comes to return-to-play policy.

Since the 1990s, Baylor has protected its athletic medical staff from an unwanted clash between coaches and medical staff in the case of player injuries.

Sims said Baylor athletics hires medical staff through the athletic department’s adminstration, leaving the coaching staff with no control over any medical staff member’s status.

“Our athletic training department has all been hired through the administration for about 20 years. We started doing it that way in about the mid-1990s, just slightly ahead of our time. I think for this dilemma it makes a big difference.” – Baylor head athletic trainer Mike Sims

Oftentimes, there is uncertainty on whether a player is in a good enough condition to return to the game, specifically in the case of concussions.

“The issue of concussions remains a top concern for everybody involved with athletics at all levels, and this new legislation is another important step in the process that has made college athletics safer than ever.” – National Football Foundation (NFF) President and CEO Steve Hatchell

In the situation that a player gets hurt, the Baylor coaching staff has no power to threaten medical staff or decide whether the player can return to the game.

The new law aims to remove the confusion and pressure put on coaches and trainers in this situation.

“The staff doesn’t have to go through the emotional process anymore. Coaches get passionate and emotional during a game and they go to their medical staff and ask, ‘Can my player play?’ and the medical staff say, ‘No,’ and the coach says, ‘But I need him to play. Let him play.’” – Baylor head athletic trainer Mike Sims

Current protocol leaves health and safety decision power exclusively with team medical professionals.

Team physicians and athletic trainers in the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) now have “unchallengeable autonomous authority” in return-to-play situations.

Before this legislation, it was up to the universities themselves to implement policy regarding return-to-play situations.

“It’s just these things were put in place a long time ago; different coaches running their programs and different ways of doing things.” – Baylor head athletic trainer Mike Sims

Some universities, like Baylor, had already established their own policies long before the NCAA passed the law on Jan. 15.

“Many people overlook the role of our nation’s athletic trainers who are out there every day for the good of the kids. This is an enormously important step in empowering the athletic trainers and team physicians as the first line in protecting our student-athletes.” – National Football Foundation (NFF) President and CEO Steve Hatchell

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a board member of the NFF, had a heavy hand in the effort ultimately resulting in the adoption of the new legislation.

Legislation regarding return-to-play situations had already been passed at the 2015 NCAA Convention, but Bowlsby and Oklahoma senior center Ty Darlington were unsatisfied with it.

Bowlsby and Darlington said the 2015 protocol still gave the coaches too much power in affecting return-to-play decisions.

Taking on the issue peronsally, Bowlsby intensified the protocol in his own conference, the Big 12.

The Big 12 bolstered its own return-to-play protocol last year and is the same protocol being used across all Power Five conferences.

“We applaud the Power Five conferences for their leadership on formalizing the rules for protecting the safety of our nation’s student-athletes.” – National Football Foundation (NFF) President and CEO Steve Hatchell

For Baylor and other Big 12 schools, there won’t be much change. Baylor and the Big 12 were ahead of the game.