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Injuries Become a Federal Case

NCAA: Legislation to protect employees' privacy may keep schools from reporting athletes' conditions.

October 10, 2002|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Troy Polamalu of USC hobbled off the football field late in the first half of last week's loss at Washington State, Trojan officials were quick to dispel speculation that their standout strong safety had suffered a season-ending injury. It's a sprained right ankle, they quickly reported.

But under a federal law set to take effect in April, it might become illegal for USC officials to say anything.

The Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, designed to protect the privacy of employee medical records, also includes language that could punish institutions for releasing information about an athlete's medical records.

As a result, schools will be backed into a corner when faced with situations such as Polamalu's injury, which took place in a packed stadium and before a regional television audience. Will they be able to keep information private with hundreds of thousands of fans wondering about the condition of a player who is carted off the field?

The measure also has heightened concern about gambling on college events because bookmakers rely on injury reports before posting odds on a game.

For example, Polamalu's status--he might not be able to play Saturday against Cal--is a consideration for experts charged with setting a betting line on the game.

From the press box high above the field, there was early speculation that Polamalu's injury was serious--torn ankle ligaments or even a broken leg. A radio station reported that it was a knee injury.

"In that situation, we needed to be able to control that information," said Tim Tessalone, USC's sports information director. After getting correct information from the Trojan medical staff, Tessalone told reporters about the sprain.

Hal Hunter, head of the Health Care Administration Program at Long Beach State and an expert on medical issues, said banning the release of injury reports would be an unfortunate and "unintended consequence" of strict interpretation of the law's language.

In a key section of the original 16-page document, the words "school or university" are lumped in with those of health-care providers, employers and "any other person furnishing health care services or supplies."

In August, the Bush administration issued a 443-page summary of how the law is to be interpreted, relaxing parts that would have prohibited health-care providers from sharing important medical information with each other. But its effect on athletic teams remains unclear.

"It wasn't intended for sports," Hunter said. "People would be denied health insurance if they had preexisting conditions, so they couldn't try to go to another job somewhere else.

"The general thinking is that it should apply more to student health-services records, rather than injuries. It was originally designed to prevent people from getting locked into their jobs."

Officials at USC and UCLA recently formed task forces to discuss how to implement the law, which for violators carries fines up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison. Information specialists at a few other local colleges said they knew little or nothing about the mandated change.

"We're just in the beginning stages of discussing the impact that this bill would have on the different areas at UCLA," Associate Athletic Director Betsy Stephenson said.

The NFL, which requires teams to release weekly injury reports, "continues to analyze the potential impact and is weighing our options," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

The league is prepared to ask for an exemption from the law if federal regulators don't clarify how sports teams should apply the new rules, he said. Other professional sports groups are sure to follow.

But it's not that simple at the college level, where the quantity and quality of injury reports vary from school to school.

Several times this season school officials have left audiences hanging by refusing to divulge conditions of players injured during games broadcast on national television.

In other cases, college coaches, wary of giving opponents a break, can use the new law as a shield.

Injury reports are routinely published in newspapers throughout the nation, but the manner in which injuries come to light vary.

Some colleges, such as Kansas State, refuse to report them altogether. Others, such as Arizona, follow the NFL approach and make them available on a regular basis. Still others leave it up to reporters who discover injuries by watching practices or talking to players.

USC Coach Pete Carroll said he would like to see a uniform process for reporting injuries.

UCLA's Stephenson believes that withholding injury reports might curb wagering on college events because it would restrict the quantity of information available to gamblers.

John Mackovic, Arizona's football coach, said he is afraid the opposite might be true. "Whenever you try to hide that information, someone is going to get it or try to get it and that opens up a whole new set of problems," he said.

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