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Report: NCAA medical requirements may be lacking for athletes

October 8, 1997

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ A top-heavy NCAA rule book spelling out such minutia as when and how many times a coach can telephone a recruit seems to be missing a more important element.

The Kansas City Star reported in Wednesday’s editions that the NCAA does not require basic safety measures that could preserve the health and even the lives of some athletes.

Instead, the NCAA leaves medical protection almost entirely to the consciences and budgets of each college, the Star found in an 18-month investigation.

The newspaper said the NCAA doesn’t require schools to hire any athletic trainers or mandate, as one of its own committees recommended, that coaches know lifesaving techniques.

NCAA officials and others say it’s not fair to blame the organization for the relatively few deaths among the thousands of college athletes. Often, the athletes knowingly put themselves in danger _ maybe to win a spot on the team or just to keep playing.

``I don’t disagree at all that one death is one too many,″ NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey said. ``That’s a constant concern.″

But programs operate too differently to enforce blanket rules, he said.

``I think it’s really hard to place number criteria upon institutions, that you have to have `X number’ of staff,″ Dempsey said.

One man who disagrees is Webb Cate, whose daughter Terrie Cate died after collapsing during a six-mile training run at the University of California-Irvine with no certified athletic trainers nearby.

``We turned over to an NCAA organization a totally healthy athlete,″ said Webb Cate. ``The institution was subject to adhering to the guidelines of the NCAA.

``Those were inadequate.″

Shirley Cate recalled how confident she felt when her daughter enrolled at a Division I school ``that had NCAA backing.″

``I called Terrie the day they had that first practice. I wanted to go up and watch it. She said, `Oh, no, Mom. You don’t have to come. Everything will be fine.′

``And I thought, `You know, she’s right. She’s gone from high school. She’s all taken care of.‴

Using its claim that college athletes are amateurs who are not asked to generate money, the NCAA has also spent hundreds of thousands in legal fees to deny workmen’s compensation benefits to injured athletes.

Fred Rensing, once a top football player at Indiana State, spends his days in a wheelchair thinking dark thoughts about the NCAA. After he was paralyzed during a football practice 20 years ago, the NCAA _ whose mission is the welfare of student-athletes _ helped fight Rensing in a court battle that denied him $104 a week in benefits.

The case has since been cited in other denials of benefits to injured college athletes.

``As far as I’m concerned, the NCAA just put me in a bag and tied me up and threw me in the river,″ Rensing said.

NCAA lawyers argued that college athletes are amateurs, not employees, and therefore cannot claim workers’ compensation benefits. Plus, NCAA lawyers contended, paying such benefits would be too costly for its member schools.

Ironically, sports safety was the main reason for the founding of the NCAA in 1906, after 18 football players were killed and 149 more were injured.

President Teddy Roosevelt, whose own son was injured playing college football, ordered colleges to band together to make sports safer, and the NCAA was the result.

Today, the NCAA’s own constitution says colleges must ``protect and enhance″ the physical welfare of athletes. In fact, the NCAA is the only organization with the ability to enact and enforce tough medical standards for campuses nationwide, experts say.

However, the Star’s analysis of NCAA injury data indicated that leaving it up to the colleges hasn’t worked. Some injuries on NCAA campuses are increasing. For instance, injuries requiring surgery jumped more than 12 percent from 1991 to 1996.

``There is a concern that ... increased athletics activity has not been matched by an increase in appropriate medical support,″ said a recent report by the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports.

Although some committee members believe the NCAA has shown an interest in the welfare of athletes, at least one former committee member now wonders whether the NCAA really cares.

``They have the gall and temerity to ignore us,″ said Paul Gikas, a retired pathologist whose six-year term on the committee ended last year. ``I question their sincerity in their concern about the health and safety of the athletes.″

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