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NCAA summit draws soccer community to discuss health, safety

Representatives from youth, college and professional soccer gather in Indianapolis to consider how to improve safety in the sport.

Brian Hainline didn’t know what to expect when the diverse group of professionals first gathered in front of him for the NCAA Soccer Summit in Indianapolis.

There were coaches and athletic trainers, conference commissioners and medical officers for several national governing bodies. Youth soccer was represented, and even professional soccer. It’s a diverse group Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, wanted for the summit because they brought such different backgrounds and perspectives, and because they had one commonality he figured could make the format constructive: a passion for soccer.

The group left energized and congratulating each other on a successful meeting. While no specific actions were taken, several groups were formed to continue conversations on some of the most pressing medical issues facing soccer. Those groups are expected to bring recommendations back to the summit participants over the next several months, which could lead to recommended guidelines and best practices that will inform health and safety decisions within the NCAA governance system and soccer organizations at all levels of the sport.

By the end of the two-day event, Hainline had no doubt that the meeting – and the new format in particular – was a success.

“This surpassed my expectations because it’s the first time that (the NCAA) brought such a diverse group of people who are looking at one sport in particular,” Hainline said. “Ultimately I think that’s going to be the most effective way to get a very broad consensus on how to change the model of sport in our society. It won’t happen overnight, but if you get all the key constituents of the soccer community to say, ‘We need to do A, B, C and D to make soccer a great sport and a model of wellness,’ that brings you to that path.”

The summit presented a fresh, inclusive approach to addressing health and safety issues at NCAA schools and beyond. In the past, such issues were addressed in relatively isolated groups. Athletic trainers, team doctors and sport scientists often discussed important topics apart from coaches and administrators. Finding a consensus on issues that affected, for example, on-field procedures such as practices and playing rules could come slowly, and at times become emotional.

Since Hainline joined the NCAA in 2013, the Association has organized task forces mostly composed of medical experts to discuss concussion, mental health and cardiac issues. Their discussions led to breakthroughs in football practice guidelines now widely followed by major programs, and in new educational resources that address student-athlete mental health. But for Hainline’s most ambitious goals – addressing early specialization in youth sports, overuse injuries and proper rest and recovery periods not just at the NCAA level, but at the youth and high school levels as well – a different approach was necessary

“The reason that I ultimately went with the one-sport-by-one-sport model is that you can’t address, broadly speaking, early specialization for all sports (at one time), Hainline said. “You can’t look at overuse injuries broadly for all sports. And you can’t look at rules comprehensively for all sports.  The only way I could really come to think of addressing overuse injury and early sport specialization was sport by sport.”

Hainline opted for an inclusive approach to that sport-by-sport model. He collaborated with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s chief medical officer, George Chiampas, to lead the summit. He assembled university presidents and executives of national sports organizations. NCAA soccer coaches, conference leaders and athletics directors from all three divisions sat alongside neuropsychologists and team physicians. And with those diverse perspectives contributing to discussions, topics that could become emotionally charged among some groups – such as the lengths of seasons and recovery time between games — developed into constructive commentaries.

“Everybody has the same goal: How can we make the game as safe as possible?” Chiampas said. “When you collaborate with the entities that were there today, that’s when you have the greatest ability to provide a uniform message to parents who want their kids to be in an environment that is safe and productive.”

The group’s work will be ongoing. Five working groups left the summit charged with formulating the discussions into actionable recommendations, which will be presented to the full group at different periods during the next year. From there, consensus guidelines and best practices could be developed.

Those recommendations could eventually influence policy and rules decisions. At the NCAA, the Division I Council and the Management and Presidents Councils in Divisions II and III would discuss the working groups’ recommendations and determine any legislative or policy actions for each division. But because many of the nation’s largest soccer organizations – among them the U.S. Soccer Federation, Major League Soccer and the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations — also participated in those discussions, Hainline and Chiampas were optimistic about the potential for wide-reaching progress beyond college sports.

Hainline’s summit concept won’t be limited to soccer, though. A wrestling summit is already being planned for later this year, and Hainline’s broad agenda is to hold sport-specific summits for each NCAA sport – an ambitious long-term goal that he hopes will shift the culture of sport so that health and safety are foundational.   

“This is a unique opportunity for the NCAA to be a bridge builder,” he said, “and really say we think this is the best thing to do.  We have a moral and ethical responsibility to do it.”