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KU takes a needed step to protect student athletes. Will other schools follow suit?

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A message from Dr. Robin Ikeda, Acting Director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, on how you can prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths by staying cool, hydrated and informed.
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A message from Dr. Robin Ikeda, Acting Director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, on how you can prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths by staying cool, hydrated and informed.

Athletes at the University of Kansas will soon be better protected while practicing and competing.

KU’s Athletic Department said Wednesday that more than three dozen of the school’s trainers, doctors and other specialists will work for a new group, Kansas Team Health, that will be directly supervised by medical professionals at the University of Kansas Health System and LMH Health.

That means KU’s training staff — including strength and conditioning specialists — won’t answer to coaches or athletic directors. Instead, physicians will call the shots.

“That’s the most important thing,” said KU Athletic Director Jeff Long. “Our physicians clearly know, and this model clearly defines for them, they are in charge when it comes to medical issues, and no one else.”

It should go without saying that the health of amateur athletes who compete for colleges and universities is far more important than winning or losing. Yet all too often schools act as if the reverse is true.

Trainers and sports medicine professionals often become entrenched at universities, leading to a lack of oversight and in some cases, scandal. Ohio State investigated former team doctor Richard Strauss and found evidence that he sexually abused at least 177 students over a 20-year period.

Larry Nassar, now in prison after molesting hundreds of gymnasts and children, worked at Michigan State. The school failed to respond to his predation, investigators have found, despite repeated complaints about Nassar’s behavior.

A football player at the University of Maryland died last year after suffering exertional heat stroke during practice. The school later apologized to the player’s family and admitted the team’s staff failed to properly diagnose and treat the player.

In Kansas, 19-year old Braeden Bradforth died last August after football practice at Garden City Community College, a tragedy that has outraged residents in his home state of New Jersey, but has largely gone unnoticed by lawmakers here.

Hundreds of college athletes in all sports report pressure to “play through” injuries, often at great risk. That’s unacceptable.

Independent oversight from the new Kansas Team Health system could serve as a model for other colleges and universities, but it is only a start. The NCAA and other oversight organizations must consider additional steps, including providing health insurance without deductibles or co-pays for all college athletes. Schools should also insure athletes for treatment of college-related injuries that surface after graduation.

Coaches and staff must be severely punished if athletes suffer life-threatening injuries and don’t receive proper treatment. Bradforth’s coach left Garden City Community College for a better job at Missouri Southern State University. The teenager’s death caused barely a ripple.

Athletes who compete for colleges and universities do so without compensation other than scholarships. They risk their health to provide millions of dollars for coaches and schools. And they merit protection.

KU, and the participating health systems, deserve credit for taking a step in the right direction, but further protections are essential at every school in the nation.

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