Harvard-Westlake High athletes enjoy training care that would make some… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Better medical care for high school athletes is an oft-stated goal, but trying to mandate it through legislation has been a political football in California for years.
Nearly a decade ago, Assembly Bill 760 was passed, providing $500,000 to place certified athletic trainers at some schools. Before it could happen, though, the money was swept back into the general fund to help replace budget shortfalls.
The California Athletic Trainers' Assn. has spearheaded several legislation drives since then, with the stated goal of "requiring licensure for all athletic trainers" and "for every school in California to employ one." None of the bills has passed.
"Realistically, it's not a great time to expand and create new programs when people are trying to just survive or make ends meet," said former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who promoted AB 760.
Nationwide, 42% of high schools employ a part-time or full-time athletic trainer, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Assn. In California, the number is between 30% and 40%, said Roger Blake, assistant executive director of the CIF.
That leaves plenty of gaps in care to be plugged by coaches and school officials who are often already overwhelmed.
Coaches are supposed to know basic emergency medical procedures, and some pick up tips from free Internet courses on topics such as medical taping. Otherwise, medical attention is delivered by makeshift teams of volunteers, trainers filling in part time, parents and students learning on the job.
On one sideline during a recent Friday night game, the unlikely duo of a skilled surgeon and an unlicensed trainer worked side by side for a team from blue-collar suburban Los Angeles.
The trainer, Omar Romero, helps his alma mater by rushing to games after full shifts at his day job repairing and installing fire safety equipment. The surgeon, Dr. Thomas Vangsness, started patrolling the Garfield High sidelines 23 years ago as a participant in a sports medicine fellowship. He's now a professor of orthopedic surgery at USC.
"I make a lot of money. I'm a surgeon," he said. "So this is a little something to give back."
Dozens of physicians are game-day volunteers at schools all across the Southland — for a variety of reasons. Patrolling the sideline of a school from an upscale coastal community, one joked that his motives weren't "100% altruistic."
"The kids might need help, and I need patients," he said.
Elsewhere, groups such as Team to Win and Team HEAL (Helping Enrich Athletes Lives) — organized by healthcare professionals and funded by sponsorships and donations — hire certified athletic trainers to fan out among schools in need.
Team to Win, which was founded in 1994, serves nearly two dozen schools mostly around the South Bay and Westside; Team HEAL provides for City Section schools Crenshaw, Manual Arts, Banning and Carson.
There's also a free walk-in clinic sponsored by the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation on Saturdays during the fall at the Manhattan Village Mall in Manhattan Beach. Organizers say more than three dozen athletes typically come in for treatment there rather than at a hospital emergency room.
Dr. Keith Feder, an orthopedic surgeon and the medical director of Team to Win, said care would improve immensely if there were a mandate that each campus hire a certified trainer. Such experts, he added, would quickly become so familiar with their athletes that they could "tell if something is wrong, specifically in a game when the symptoms might not be immediately clear."
That's common for public schools in Hawaii and the District of Columbia, and what's routine in Texas and a handful of other states.
Spanky Stephens, executive director of the Texas State Athletic Trainers' Assn., said each of his state's largest high schools has at least two licensed athletic trainers on staff. He doesn't accept funding woes as an excuse for lagging medical care.
The issue, he says, comes down to priorities. "They've got the means to get the sport and the three coaches to go along with it," he said, "so don't tell me they ain't got the means for an athletic trainer."
Correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.