When he first joined the Northwest High School football team as an assistant coach, Mike Neubeiser was, like other coaches in Montgomery County, also a de facto athletic trainer.
Neubeiser and the other assistants at the Germantown school took turns at practice each day taping ankles and watching for warning signs of concussions or heat illness. Some county schools had unofficial trainers: health-care providers who volunteered their time at games. For other schools, the athletic training presence was nothing more than a parent with a medical background.
Then, last season, Montgomery County partnered with local vendors to implement a pilot program that placed certified athletic trainers at roughly half of the county’s 25 schools. Next season, the pilot program will expand to include all high schools, Duke Beattie, the county’s athletic director, said July 9.
The trainers will continue to work roughly 25 hours per week, Beattie said, and they are not school employees. The county does not fund athletic training programs at high schools, although it could begin to do so at the conclusion of the pilot program in 2015.
“We’ll evaluate the program and see how it’s going. And then, in turn, the school system will make a determination if they’ll include it in the budget for next year,” Beattie said. “It’s something that I’m sure they would like to do. It’s whether they’ll be able to do it.”
According to the county’s website, roughly 22,000 student-athletes participate in high school sports in the county, amounting to more than 1,000 teams throughout the system. Yet this will be the first season in which each school has a certified athletic trainer at its disposal.
In lieu of trainers, coaches have been required to take safety courses on general injury care and prevention, plus courses every two years on more significant ailments such as concussions and heat illness. They also must be CPR certified and trained to use a defibrillator.
“They teach you those techniques but you’re still not a professional. You’re not going to be as good as a professional,” said Neubeiser, now Northwest’s head coach. “[A trainer] benefits the kids greatly, and it helps coaching-wise for us. It’s a big weight off of our shoulders as well.”
Other counties in the area have approached the athletic training issue in different ways. Howard County budgets for part-time athletic trainers at each school. In St. Mary’s County, each school has $10,000 to use on athletic training contracts with vendors throughout the year.
Prince George’s, Calvert and Charles counties have no athletic trainers. The athletic training budget in Charles County was eliminated last month, while one Prince George’s County official said: “We try to have EMTs at games, when we can get them.”
Anne Arundel County and Washington, D.C., high schools each have a full-time athletic trainer.
According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, 39 percent of U.S. high schools have access to a full-time athletic trainer.
With its pilot program, Montgomery now falls somewhere in the middle. Tom Hearn, a sports safety advocate whose son played football at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, said expanding the program is a positive change. But he said it also spotlights the “sports safety gap” between Montgomery and neighboring areas that make trainers a priority in their athletic budgets.
“The funding for the pilot program appears to be by donations from private health care providers. ... [It] will only last as long as the private parties are willing to make those donations,” Hearn said. “I think having athletic trainers at high schools is better than not having them. But long term, Superintendent [Joshua] Starr and the school board need to make a grown-up decision to fund athletic trainers in the budget rather than getting by on the kindness of strangers.”