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SEC to Begin Requiring Independent Medical Observers at Football Games

At last week's Southeastern Conference spring meetings, outgoing SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced that the conference had passed a regulation requiring an independent medical observer for all SEC and home non-conference football games beginning this fall.

"This will give us another check in the event that, on the field, a team doesn't see someone who may have had a head injury and needs to come off the field," Slive told reporters. "Most of the time, the sideline picks up those kinds of things. But, just in case they don't, we are doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of our student athletes."

Greg Sankey, Slive's successor, noted that a few SEC schools already had independent medical observers present last year, per Natalie Pierre of AL.com. "We broadened that to make it consistent across the league," he said.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples shared the details of the new policy:

Those observers, who will either be physicians or certified athletic trainers, will have open lines of communication to the teams' sidelines. They'll also have the ability to alert the officiating crew. If the player with the apparent head injury looks like he's staying on the field for the next play, the observer can use the replay official's equipment to alert the referee, who will then stop play until the player is taken off the field to be evaluated. Even if the player is OK, he must miss the next play or his coach must call timeout to get him back on the field.

The Big Ten Conference implemented similar reforms this past December, requiring each school to have an independent, neutral athletic trainer on hand in the replay booth, who must have his/her own monitor and an ability to directly contact officials on the field. 

"The enhanced concussion protocols will be incorporated by reference into the existing conference-wide concussion-management policy and will include reporting requirements, disciplinary action for noncompliance, and a higher level of accountability for conference-member institutions," the conference said in a news release at the time.

In September, then-University of Michigan head coach Brady Hoke came under fire for his handling of concussed quarterback Shane Morris. After a helmet-to-helmet hit left Morris wobbly on the field, he remained in the game for an additional play. He later returned to the game for another play before being removed for good.

According to Staples, the SEC showed footage of the Morris debacle when presenting the policy, which may have helped sway support for its approval. University of Mississippi head football coach Hugh Freeze told Staples "none of the coaches have a problem" with the new policy.

"The communication you have with your medical staff now is really just one-sided," Freeze added. "It's you listening. You cannot afford to act like you have the authority on whether a kid is able to perform without putting himself at risk."

The North Carolina state board of education adopted a similar policy at the beginning of April, requiring licensed athletic trainers or other trained first responders to attend all high school football practices and games in the state. Under the policy, each local education agency must designate a licensed athletic trainer or a trained first responder for each high school within its jurisdiction, to be employed either on a full-time, part-time, or volunteer basis. The athletic trainer or first responder cannot also currently coach during the time in which he or she is serving each school, theoretically ensuring impartiality.

Unless football removes physical contact entirely, there's no way to completely mitigate the risks of concussions. Having trained medical professionals on hand to observe youth-athletes—and preventing them from doing further harm if a concussed athlete attempts to continue playing—is a step in the right direction, however. 

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