Legal Protection for Athletic Trainers

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Federal law now protects athletic trainers who travel across state lines with their teams.

Athletic trainers are crucial to the success of a school’s athletic efforts. These skilled professionals take care of student-athletes so they can perform well on the field. Their work consists of everything from providing first aid after injuries during practices or games to coordinating with doctors and coaches on rehabilitation plans and monitoring and encouraging players’ wellness.

They also travel with their teams, including to out-of-state events — a situation that, for years, posed a legal and professional dilemma because their license to provide therapeutic services stopped at the state line.

That situation changed with the Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act (SMLCA), which was signed into law in October 2018. In terms of athletic trainer legal issues, the SMCLA is a significant development.

“The new law significantly improves legal protections for athletic trainers and other sports medicine professionals, when traveling outside of their primary state of licensure to deliver medical care to their athletes,” according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

“This is a tremendous step in providing necessary and critical health care to all athletes by reducing the barriers for these health care professionals in caring for their patients,” the association said.

Protecting the health of student-athletes is a big part of a high school sports manager’s duties. An online master’s in athletic administration program can provide the background and knowledge necessary to understand the SMLCA and related legal-medical issues.

‘Desperately Needed National Legal Protection’

Before the SMLCA, traveling athletic trainers couldn’t treat their own players in another state. An article in Athletic Business called the act — which was still making its way through Congress at that point — “vital in light of playoffs and championship games from youth to professional sports and where teams travel a great distance with little notification.”

NATA, along with the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), advocated for the bipartisan legislation even before it was introduced.

NATA lauded the signing of the law as “desperately needed national legal protection to athletic trainers, and other sports medicine professionals, who are required to travel outside their primary licensed state as part of their job,” in its flier, “What You Need to Know About the Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act.”

“It recognizes, at an unprecedented level, the integral and lifesaving role athletic trainers, as well as all sports medicine professionals, play in athletic health care,” NATA wrote.

NATA’s flier also points out the law’s benefits:

  • It extends the protection of professional liability insurance to sport medicine providers, allowing them to treat athletes across state lines without fear of fines or other professional harm.
  • It preserves the student-athletes’ and the team’s access to care from their regular trainers when on the road and across state lines.
  • It treats health care services and medical care by sports medicine professionals delivered outside their home state as having occurred in the professional’s state of licensure if the secondary state’s licensure requirements are substantially similar to the primary state.

Before the SMLCA, “many states offered no legal protections for sports medicine professionals and athletic trainers whose jobs required travel for work outside their primary state of licensure,” the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) notes in an article about the law.

On an individual level, some trainers feared prosecution, fines, or loss of their licenses. For schools, the issue was one of staffing.

“The new law will benefit high school athletics programs, especially those whose teams and athletes regularly compete in neighboring states and that have in the past struggled to hire athletic trainers because of jurisdictional barriers,” the NFHS article says.

The article also points out that the law includes certain restrictions. Sports medicine professionals are not allowed to:

  • Exceed the scope of their license in their primary state.
  • Provide services that “exceed the scope of a substantially similar sports medicine professional license in the secondary state.”
  • Supersede any reciprocity agreement regarding services between the two states.
  • Supersede any licensure exemptions that the non-home state provides for its licensed sports medicine professionals.

Responsibilities of High School Athletic Trainers

Not all schools have certified athletic trainers — only about 67%, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Athletic Training — and not all students or parents understand exactly what trainers do.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, athletic trainers are “health care professionals who help prevent, assess, and treat sports injuries and other medical problems.”

Trainers can be an overall resource for both athletic directors and student-athletes. As the Cleveland Clinic points out, responsibilities can include:

  • Assessing and treating orthopedic injuries such as sprains and damaged ligaments.
  • Assisting with rehab after injuries have healed. “Athletic trainers play a key role in the rehabilitation,” the clinic notes. “And they often develop return-to-play protocols to help players get back in the g”
  • Providing emergency care, including administering CPR or using an automated external defibrillator (AED).
  • Assessing and treating concussions and helping students return to sports activities safely.
  • Treating conditions that can affect performance during practice or on the field, including stomach bugs or heatstroke, and coordinating with young athletes’ doctors, if necessary.
  • Teaching student-athletes best practices and healthy habits to help prevent injuries in the first place.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Program

Ohio University, a leader in athletic education, established the first specialized academic sports program in the United States in 1966.

The Online Master of Athletic Administration program is designed for professionals looking to advance their careers in athletic administration. Graduates are eligible for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. On average, students can complete the program in two years and develop the skills to run a successful interscholastic athletic department that meets the needs of student-athletes.

Recommended Reading:

Encouraging Multisport Athletes
For Safety’s Sake: AEDs for Interscholastic Sports
The Legal Duties of Athletic Departments


NATA, New Law Reduces Barriers to Athletic Trainer Care
NATA, What You Need to Know About the Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act
Athletic Business, Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act Reintroduced in House
NFHS, Federal Law Increases Legal Protection for Athletic Trainers
Journal of Athletic Training, Athletic Trainer Services in the Secondary School Setting
Cleveland Clinic, Does My Kid’s Sports Team Really Need an Athletic Trailer? (Yep!)