‘We Didn’t Want the Athletic Trainer Beholden to the Coach’

This week I wrote about the fractured relationships between big-time football coaches and their athletic-training staffs, exploring numerous examples of coaches’ undermining the authority of medical professionals.

To avoid such problems, a handful of colleges have moved their sports-medicine staffs outside of the athletic department. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did that in the early 1970s, after a player there died from heat stroke.

“We didn’t want the athletic trainer beholden to the coach,” says Daniel N. Hooker, who recently retired as head athletic trainer after more than 40 years at the university.

As part of my article, my colleague Jonah Newman and I surveyed hundreds of Division I athletic trainers. Many expressed concerns about their reporting lines, with some saying they were supervised by coaches or others with no medical expertise. (The National Athletic Trainers’ Association, which helped us to conduct the survey, recently released guidelines saying that members of the sports-medicine team should not report to coaches. The NCAA agrees.)

That’s not the case at North Carolina, whose athletic trainers report directly to team physicians and other medical officials.

That reporting arrangement has helped insulate athletic trainers from coaching pressures, Mr. Hooker says. But athletic trainers still face conflicts there.

“You’re selling your service to whoever that football staff is,” Mr. Hooker says, “and you’ve got to please them.”

When Butch Davis was hired, in 2006, he leaned hard on Scott Oliaro, the head football athletic trainer at the time, micromanaging his schedule and questioning his commitment, Mr. Oliaro says. Mr. Oliaro, who had two young children at the time, was not prepared for a fight. Within several months of the new coach’s arrival, he accepted a lower-profile role, and Mr. Davis subsequently had a hand in hiring his replacement.

“Generally, they’re kingdom-builders,” Mr. Oliaro says of big-name coaches. “And they tend to want someone that they know is in their court. Sometimes that’s a difficult thing to prove.”

He says he was never questioned on a medical call, but he felt uncomfortable with the new hierarchy: “It was always a sense of, ‘You’re working for me now.’”

Mr. Davis, who was fired by North Carolina in 2011 amid NCAA investigations into academic and amateurism issues, did not respond to an interview request made through his agent.

Now, Mr. Oliaro is the boss—at least on the sports-medicine staff. In July, after Mr. Hooker retired, Mr. Oliaro became the university’s head athletic trainer and associate director of sports medicine.

His move back up the ranks would not have been possible, he believes, without the system that North Carolina has in place.

But Mr. Oliaro, who has oversight responsibilities for all 28 of the university’s varsity sports, knows it’s just as important to gain the respect of coaches.

“You have to have that relationship with the coach,” he says, “no matter where you’re housed.”

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