SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly an hour of debate and discussion, the Utah Legislature's House Education Committee voted Thursday to hold in committee a bill that would require high schools with athletic programs to employ full-time licensed athletic trainers.
After passage of legislation requiring a concussion protocol in high school sports, HB305 would be the next logical step in ensuring the safety of athletes who can suffer injuries with lifelong consequences, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.
"If you're going to put student athletes at risk, if we're going to use these athletes to represent the school, we need to invest in these athletes and have some protections," Ray said.
Even with a provision to phase in the requirement by the 2020-21 school year and language in the bill to suggest ways to fund it — repurposing salaries of retiring school employees — commitee members and members of the public expressed concerns about the costs and impacts on small rural schools and charter schools.
"It's basically an unfunded mandate. Even though the bill has some suggestion how you can fund the bill, it's very difficult to replace a math teacher or an English teacher with an athletic trainer," said Carl Boyington, executive director of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals.
But others said staffing schools with an athletic trainer who can oversee practices and games would result in greater safety for student athletes.
Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers Utah, said the organization has taken no position on the bill. As a parent, he credits an athletic trainer with saving the life of his son after he suffered repeated concussions.
Even though Asay had discussed the long-term consequences of multiple concussions with his son, it was an athletic trainer who finally convinced him he needed to step away from the field of play.
"Even though it was heartbreaking for my son, it did save his life," Asay said.
But the estimated $10.6 million a year in ongoing cost was troublesome for many people who spoke against the bill, including parents of student athletes who worried it would increase the costs of participating in sports and activities, to charter school representatives who said they, like small and rural public schools, had no room in their budgets to absorb the requirement.
"As the bill is currently written, we cannot support it because it places a financial burden on us to provide for after-school activities, and it takes away from the money we spend in the classroom," said Cate Klundt, communications director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
Ray said he intends to return with a new version of the bill to address some of the concerns raised by constituents, but safety needs to be front of mind for schools and policymakers.
"The cost is always a concern," he said. "We've got to look at the cost of that permanent knee injury, or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy than can result from multiple concussions or traumatic brain injury) or death? In football, you have heat-related deaths."