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NCAA hopes to improve player safety with medical observers

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Tommy Stich never had to stop a game last season. Truth be told, he never even came close, and he is thankful that was the case.

Even if he never needed to exert that authority, the Florida athletic trainer is thankful someone had the power to bring a Gators game to a halt -- just in case he spotted a potential head injury that went unnoticed by the sideline training staff.

“There’s so many people down on the sideline helping out that the chances of them missing something big like that are pretty slim,” said Stich, who was stationed in the press box at Florida home games last season and was instructed to watch for possible concussive injuries. “But I think, from a safety standpoint and just to protect our athletes, I think it’s necessary.”

Apparently many of the higher-ups within the sport agree. Last month, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved an experimental rule that will allow medical observers to stop a game and order the officiating crew to remove a player if it appears that he has suffered a serious head or neck injury and remains in the game. The rule goes into effect this season and could become a permanent rule in 2016 if all goes smoothly.

SEC coordinator of football officials Steve Shaw called Florida’s 2014 effort the pilot program for what the conference will attempt this season.

“I think it will be very rare when the medical observer takes impact in the game,” Shaw said at the conference’s spring meetings. “But in that situation where they might, it could save a player from worse injury or concussion or whatever. So I think it’s a safety component. It’s a no-regrets [situation].”

The SEC will assign an athletic trainer with no rooting interest in a specific game to each conference contest. Seated in the press box, this independent medical observer will have the ability to watch replays of questionable plays and communicate with the replay official should they believe a player needs medical attention. The replay official can then notify the on-field officials to stop the game and remove the player from the field.

The officials would explain to the crowd that there had been a medical timeout without specifying which player was involved. The player would have to sit out for at least one play and be cleared to return to the field by the team’s sideline medical staff.

As with most new initiatives, there will certainly be some logistical hurdles the medical observers will face.

First of all, will they be able to make a conclusive decision quickly enough during the course of a fast-moving football game? It’s difficult to say at this point. Beyond Stich’s experience last year, there is not much precedent upon which to base any expectations.

“There’s certainly pros and cons with it,” said Tim Bream, director of athletic training services at Penn State, whose Big Ten Conference co-sponsored the medical observer rule proposal with the SEC. “One of the problems is if something happens, by the time the spotter sees it and gets the information down, there could be another play go off or two plays go off. So I think that’s always been an issue.”

Then there is the question of distance. Stich said he watched essentially every Florida play last season through binoculars, but he was still more than 100 feet away from the action.

“How often can they correctly identify that somebody had an injury from that kind of distance?” asked Dr. Christopher Giza, Director of UCLA’s Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program.

“An observer in the box is not able to make a clinical diagnosis of concussion any more than an armchair fan sitting at home watching on TV can diagnose a concussion.”

Nonetheless, while Stich understands those concerns, he clearly sides with the SEC’s Shaw on the subject.

And even if it’s an imperfect system, Stich believes it will be a useful, necessary safeguard in the sport’s attempt to better protect its athletes.

“I really think that every football program that should be doing it because with all the research that continues to come out with concussions, we’re learning more and more about not only the short-term effects, but the long-term effects of concussions,” Stich said. “It’s so well-publicized now and we have so much information now, but at the same time, we don’t have enough information.

“So I think anything that we can do to kind of back up ourselves and get more eyes on these athletes is only going to help. It’s not going to hurt anything is what I’m getting at. It will only help us.”