Alexander: Getting athletic trainers on prep staffs is among new CIF-SS commissioner’s priorities

LOS ALAMITOS — Whatever the percentage is of athletic trainers on high school campuses or at athletic events, if it’s not 100% it’s not enough. All it takes is one knee injury or concussion or broken bone as a reminder.

And the new commissioner of the CIF Southern Section seems to consider it a priority to increase that number, which is positive and should be expected. After all, that’s how Mike West got his start.

West, whose most recent job was as principal at Riverside’s Marthin Luther King High School before being selected to replace Rob Wigod as CIF Southern Section commissioner, earned a degree from Cal Poly in physical education with an emphasis in athletic training and studied in the University of Arizona’s graduate athletic training program while working as the athletic trainer at Catalina High.

Following that two-year stint, West was hired in 1994 by Ayala High in Chino Hills, where he was not only the athletic trainer but taught a sports medicine class in addition to world history. He was Chino Hills High’s first athletic director in 2001, then became an administrator as an assistant principal at Patriot High in 2007, principal of Jurupa Unified’s alternative education center in 2010, and then principal at Jurupa Valley High in 2013 and Martin Luther King in 2015.

Along the way, he maintained his membership, and then leadership, in state, regional and national athletic trainers’ associations. So, as you might suspect, this is somewhat personal.

He said he doesn’t know the exact percentage of schools in the section that have athletic trainers, though a survey of the California Athletic Trainers Association estimated 50% of the section’s 569 schools had them. In the L.A. City Section the number was a paltry 4.8%, according to a Los Angeles Times story.

California is the only state that doesn’t require regulation or certification of athletic trainers. AB 796, introduced in the state Assembly by Dr. Akilah Weber (D-La Mesa) and still working its way through the legislative process, would mandate licensing for trainers.

The process, West said, is haphazard.

“When we ask our schools to put in the names of their athletic trainers and contact information, do they truly understand what an athletic trainer is, you know, a certified athletic trainer vs. non-certified?” he asked. “There’s always that kind of (confusion).”

It’s not quite at the level of penciling in the student manager who just completed the course on how to tape ankles, which might have been the case decades ago. But schools are seeking out full-time athletic trainers, and West said he wants to help facilitate the process by informing administrators of what to look for.

But it’s more difficult to find qualified people. Jim Clover, an athletic trainer in the Riverside area for more than four decades and the director of the Sports Clinic at Riverside Medical Center, said there’s a shortage because some universities have cut their athletic training and sports medicine programs.

“The biggest problem now is to find enough athletic trainers because there’s pretty much not enough,” Clover said in a phone conversation. “We’ve created a problem but we don’t have a solution.

“Chapman’s closed. Azusa Pacific (where he got his Master’s) is closed. That’s 50 (trainers) you could have had working. Boston College shut down.”

And specifications are higher. West said when he started out a bachelor’s degree and/or an internship would be an adequate qualification. Now a budding athletic trainer must complete a Master’s degree program and pass the exam to be certified.

West didn’t want to quote specific salary ranges, but he speculated that a candidate with a Master’s who was classified probably would qualify to earn somewhere in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.

“But you’re never going to have someone staying somewhere unless they feel like they’re taken care of from a facilities and support perspective as well as from a financial perspective,” he said. “The turnover, a lot of times, particularly historically when athletic trainers were on contract or they’re not getting benefits, they tend to (say), ‘Well, I’m only going to stay for a while. I’ll make money now, but I’m waiting for that other position to open up.’

“High school athletic training should be a destination job. And it can be in many respects, depending on the individual and depending on the support systems that are provided.”

The on-campus presence is vital, West said, not only for building relationships with the athletes and understanding their medical histories but also building relationships with coaches and earning the trust to be able to make a call on whether a player can play without the coach squawking (much) about it.

Currently, in the Inland Empire, Clover said he has 45 athletic trainers working at schools under the auspices of the Sports Clinic, the successor to the SPORT Clinic that had been run by Riverside Community Hospital but was shut down in 2015. The mission is the same: Provide treatment for the community’s high school and college athletes, both on the field and during office hours.

“We’re doing the same thing, seeing kids (athletes) from 6 to 8 a.m. for free,” he said. “We’ve been doing it since 1981.”

A number of high schools in the Inland Empire, including King, have student trainer programs in the Career Technical Education category. Years ago I did a story about MLK’s trainer, Julie Jamison, who was a SPORT Clinic trainer but was on campus full-time teaching sports medicine, medical terminology and advanced sports therapy. The student trainers who helped her on game nights and stayed in the program for at least two seasons got letter jackets, just like the athletes.

“They still do that,” Clover said, at not only MLK but John W. North, Corona Centennial and Norco, among others in the area.

The benefits are twofold. The athletes are cared for, and if it sparks the interest of even one student to pursue a career in general medicine or sports medicine … well, isn’t that part of the education process, too?

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