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Separation of Coach and Doctor in Sports

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Some former Indiana University football players have accused former head football coach Kevin Wilson of mistreatment. Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY

I’ve read quite a few stories, cases at Indiana University being apparently the most egregious, about athletes who suffered injuries that were not properly treated by team trainers and doctors. This problem illustrates the reason we have something called checks and balances. The Founding Fathers of the United States realized that you cannot put too much power in the hands of one group or person. We are moving toward a similar doctrine in athletics and it’s about time.

The problem is coaches have a vested interest in athletes playing. They want the player in the game because this increases the chances of winning. Pain is an incredibly difficult thing to quantify. What one player calls debilitating another might be able to play through. It is often difficult to diagnose an injury as serious or mild. Injured players are capable of amazing performances and money is on the line.

For a college or professional coach that money can be enormous. For a lower level coach the allure of that money is not to be discounted. A coach doesn’t get a job at Indiana University without first working his or her way up the ladder. At each step, the coach is largely dependent on athletes. If athletes can’t perform, the coach doesn’t win games. If the coach loses game they don’t get promoted. There are plenty of others looking for the same job.

Pushing athletes to their maximum performance is something a great coach does. She or he has seen over the course of countless practices, many games, and season after season; athletes can do more than they imagine. That properly applied admonishments and encouragements give a tremendous return. Thus, when an athlete is hurt, the coach’s natural instinct is to push the player. To push the training staff to push the player.

All of this is very natural but it’s a problem when the athlete has suffered a serious injury. When pushing through the pain causes even more problems, and possibly long-term disability. That’s why we need a separation of powers, checks and balances. And not just in the running the country.

We’re definitely seeing a movement toward this separation. Professional sports leagues, particularly the NFL, have led the way. The NFL concussion protocol insists coaches be completely removed from the decision-making process. The NCAA and college teams are beginning to understand the importance of such rules.

Whenever there is a lot of money to be made, and in athletics the stakes are massive, you’re going to find people willing to push to the extreme. Athletes want to perform, coaches want to win, trainers want to get athletes back on the field; and all those things create an environment that is dangerous. A simple separation of powers, a system of checks and balances is what we need.

Good enough for the Founding Fathers, good enough for me.

By Tom Liberman

Tom Liberman is a regular fellow from St. Louis, Mo., who enjoys spending time with his wonderful family and great friends. He writes Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels in his spare time. 

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