Despite new efforts intended to limit coach's ability to hire and fire sports medical personnel, there are still concerns that some programs may be violating NCAA policies, according to a report from ESPN's Outside the Lines.
In 2016, the NCAA approved rules set to guarantee athletic training and sports medicine staff had independence from coaches in the Power 5 conferences. The remaining Division I schools voted in October to pass the legislation.
The rules ensure that team physicians and athletic trainers have the authority to make decisions on injured players' treatment and when they return to play. While coaches can hire and fire assistant coaches and certain other staff members, the NCAA wants the trainers and medical personnel's employment, supervision and decisions made without input from coaches.
"The coach must be completely de-coupled from medical decision-making," an NCAA briefing document states, per ESPN, "and primary athletics health care providers must be in an environment in which making such decisions are free of any threat from coaches."
National Athletic Trainers' Association president Tory Lindley said there's still concern that some trainers are making decisions because they know the head coach is responsible for their employment.
"It sort of sets up the possibility of a relationship where I'm answering to the coach, and I shouldn't be answering to the coach. I should be answering to the call of medicine," chief medical officer of the NCAA Dr. Brian Hainline said.
Outside the Lines obtained documents appearing to show that football and basketball coaches at Texas A&M influenced who provided medical care to their players. A source called it "a direct violation of NCAA policy."
After the Aggies hired coach Jimbo Fisher in December 2017, athletic director Scott Woodward reportedly signed off on two letters in January 2018 terminating Phil Hedrick, the school's associate athletics director overseeing athletic training, and head football athletic trainer Owen Stanley. According to Outside the Lines, the letters said Fisher would want to "hire his own staff, as in the industry standard."
Hainline told Outside the Lines that the decision was a "direct contradiction of NCAA policy."
When Texas A&M hired men's basketball coach Buzz Williams in April, the team's athletic trainer, Matt Doles, was fired after 14 years with the program. Outside the Lines acquired an April 9 email from senior associate athletics director Justin Moore which said Williams would want to bring "his guy" from Virginia Tech. According to records obtained by Outside the Lines from the school, Hokies athletic trainer Eddie Benion left the program and now works for Texas A&M making almost $100,000– that's 55% more than Doles' salary with the team.
Hainline called it "not consistent with the legislation."
When asked about it, Texas A&M team physician Dr. J.P. Bramhall said the "guidelines we are given are not rules." However, Hainline said the NCAA legislation is a rule that schools should follow.
Moore declined an interview with Outside the Lines, and Texas A&M did not make personnel like Fisher and Williams available to comment. The school released a statement instead.
"Persons in staff positions at Texas A&M are at-will employees. Administrative and employment decisions are the responsibility of Athletic Administration. Dr. Bramhall and/or our medical staff are consulted and [sic] is involved in the screening process related to hiring of athletic training staff. The Director of Sports Medicine analyzes and has ultimate oversight of the health and wellness of our student-athletes."
One anonymous Texas A&M athletic trainer who worked under Fisher told OTL the football staff was influential in the decision making.
"It was 100% the football staff. They had the say in who they were going to hire," he said. "In our big sports, the coaches have all the say in how they want to build their program."
Texas A&M isn't the only school reportedly violating the NCAA rules. Outside the Lines talked to six other current or former trainers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The trainers said they either left their jobs or were let go because of a coach's decision and schools are not following the new rules.
Hainline said the NCAA is working on ways to enforce the rules but there are no penalties in place yet for schools that violate them.