It’s Time to Save All Athletes: Korey Stringer Institute on Player Safety after Damar Hamlin Emergency

On-site athletic trainers, emergency action plans, and other life-saving resources are needed to keep athletes safe

An athletic trainer attends to an injured football player. (Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

An athletic trainer attends to an injured football player. UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute and Department of Kinesiology oversee several programs across the country to support athletic trainers. (Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Researchers from UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute discuss the recent on-field cardiac event experienced by professional football player Damar Hamlin. At a time when the world is watching, they explain the importance of life-saving resources like those Hamlin received to be available to athletes at all levels around the country.

Last week, many of us watched the traumatic events of a sudden cardiac arrest unfold live during the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals Monday Night Football game. Thankfully reports of Damar Hamlin’s current medical status are very encouraging. There is little doubt that the on-site medical staff and execution of the emergency action plan saved Damar’s life.

But sadly many athletes in our country who experience cardiac arrest or other medical emergencies during sport don’t have access to this type of immediate care.

At UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) and our partner PlaySafe, we believe that all athletes deserve access to high quality and timely healthcare regardless of income, geography, level of competition, or any other factor.

“The mission of the Korey Stringer Institute is to provide research, education, advocacy and consultation to optimize safety, maximize performance, and prevent sudden death for the athlete, warfighter, and laborer,” says Douglas Casa, CEO and professor of kinesiology in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR). “That commitment applies to all athletes, from youth sports through professional and Olympic caliber competitors.”

Prepared for Anything

While a sudden cardiac arrest in sports is rare it can happen at any time, in any sport, at any level of competition. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in sports, contributing to over 60% of all catastrophic injuries in sports.

But as we saw in the case of Damar Hamlin, sudden cardiac arrest does not need to be a fatal event for athletes. A 2019 study found that 83% of athletes who sustained a sudden cardiac arrest survived if an athletic trainer was on-site and involved in the resuscitation. The study found that 89% of athletes survived if an on-site automatic external defibrillator was used in the resuscitation.

Sadly, Athletic Training Locations and Services (ATLAS) data reveals that more than one-third of high schools in the United States that have athletics have no access to athletic training services. This needs to change.

With proper prevention, recognition, and treatment of sudden cardiac arrest in sport, athletes can survive. Through KSI’s research, programs, and advocacy, we are working to ensure all athletes have access to on-site athletic trainers and venue specific athletic emergency action plans.

We also believe that early action when a problem occurs – from recognition of sudden cardiac arrest, to activation of emergency medical Services, and access to automated external defibrillator (AED) within 1-3 minutes of all athletic venues will help save lives.

“This past week, through the efforts of athletic training colleagues and other medical staff, a young man’s life was saved,” says Jason Powell, director of athletic training for PlaySafe. “It is our hope at PlaySafe that awareness of athletic trainers and the importance of having these trained medical professionals at all levels of athletics will continue to evolve.” PlaySafe, a non-profit provider of athletic training services, provides access to medical services through the development of community partnerships and other sources at large.

Advocacy for Athletes

Why doesn’t every team have access to these lifesaving resources? Athletic training services are often not state funded. School are responsible for seeking other financial support, which may be challenging. Through the innovATe project, PlaySafe’s and KSI have been instrumental in affording athletic training services for high schools in South Carolina. These efforts also support PlaySafe in providing educational opportunities for high school coaching staff and school administration on health and safety in athletics such as the care and management of sudden cardiac arrest and the development of emergency action plans. With these services and resources in place, more student athletes have the access to critical healthcare in the event of an emergency.

The innovATe project, which is funded through the NFL’s Education Fund is a $3 million dollar initiative to increase access to medical care provided by an athletic trainer for secondary school athletes in under-resourced communities around the country.

“The innovATe project helps fund the addition of athletic training services in high schools that have not previously been able to support that type of position,” says Christianne Eason, president of sport safety and director of the innovATe project. “Communities like the Abbeville County School District in South Carolina clearly care about the health and well-being of their student athletes. Thanks to funds provided through the innovATe project and support from PlaySafe, this community now has access to the medical care that an athletic trainer is able to provide.”

To enact widespread change, we need the understanding and support of decisionmakers and representatives. Another KSI initiative is working to enhance sports safety policies for high schools across the country. The Team Up for Sports Safety (TUFSS) project, sponsored by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association and the NFL Foundation, was established to drive change and adoption of policies proven to reduce catastrophic sport injury at the high school level. Working together in the context of individual states around the country, we aim to formalize actionable items for adoption or improvement of health and safety policies.

“We have seen that when stakeholders for high school athlete health and safety come together for a collaborative conversation surrounding lifesaving measures for sport, these critical policies are adopted faster,” says Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of KSI and assistant professor in residence at CAHNR. “In TUFFS’ first three years alone, 38 states adopted policies that made high school athletes safer. States where health experts collaborated through TUFFS saw an increase of about 10% in the number of policies to reduce catastrophic sport injury.”

While projects enacted by KSI and partners like PlaySafe are moving the needle in player safety, more needs to be done. Every athlete deserves the expert, immediate, lifesaving care provided to Damar Hamlin. That’s why we at the Korey Stringer Institute and PlaySafe will continue to advocate for athletic training services and evidence-based sports safety policies, because we know they will help keep our young athletes safe, reduce the incidence of catastrophic injuries and illnesses, and ensure appropriate care is given in the event of a catastrophic incidence.


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