What happens when a student-athlete isn't medically cleared to compete in college? Here's how the process works at N.C. State.
Above: N.C. State’s free expression tunnel. Photo by Amanda Reza.
This story was written by Derya Pekari for N.C. State’s advanced reporting class.
Nicole Palmer’s doctors had said there was nothing wrong.
The freshman gymnast had four more years to do what she loved most.
But in September 2016, Palmer stood in the sports medicine office of her dream school and held her breath as a doctor told her she would never compete again.
He tried to explain the slippage that could sever her spinal cord, but she couldn’t hear him over the blood pounding in her ears.
She watched as an athletic trainer picked up a manila folder with her name on it and dropped it into a dusty bin labeled “not cleared.”
Palmer is one of the handful of college athletes who are not medically cleared when they get to their universities, leaving the athletes with unfulfilled goals and the coaches with an empty spot on the roster.
“It’s been over a year,” said the N.C. State sophomore, “and I am just now starting to get over the depression, the shock, the feelings of anger and frustration.”
NCAA legislation states that during a prospective student-athlete’s official or unofficial visit to campus, a physician may conduct a medical examination to “determine the prospective student-athlete’s medical qualifications to participate in intercollegiate athletics, provided no athletics department staff member other than the athletics trainer is present.”
As stated by the NCAA rule, the medical examination cannot include any test “designed to measure the athletic agility or skill of the prospective student-athlete,” and the results cannot be used by the institution “to deny admission of a prospective student-athlete who is otherwise qualified for admission under the institution’s regular admissions criteria.”
According to N.C. State Assistant Compliance Director Meeghan Ford, this rule is in place to ensure there is no discrimination in the potential student-athlete’s acceptance to the university.
Athletic trainers are not allowed to share the findings of the medical examination with the coaches prior to the athlete signing a National Letter of Intent, but potential student-athletes are encouraged to disclose pertinent medical information to coaches and sports medicine staff.
They often don’t disclose enough.
An N.C. State athletic trainer said potential student-athletes often don’t disclose how severe their prior injuries were. Parents and athletes are choosing to withhold some medical information because they fear the coach will not offer the athlete a scholarship.
“We’re seeing more and more parents who are willing to put their children at risk for the prestige of being a DI athlete,” the athletic trainer said.
The athletic trainer described a recent incident where an athlete’s parent sent comprehensive medical records, but failed to include information about an injury that flared up again in college.
“(The parent) took it upon herself to disclose only what she thought was necessary. It certainly wasn’t everything we needed to know,” the athletic trainer said.
Keeping students safe
Disclosure is important because N.C. State sports medicine keeps track of how safely their teams are practicing.
“We need to know,” the athletic trainer said. “Did it worsen because they’re here, or was this pre-existing injury severe?”
Senior gymnast Mackenzie Itcush agreed.
“It’s important to know what possible injuries could show up during their time at school, and whether or not those injuries were pre-existing,” she said.
Itcush emphasized that injuries reflect negatively on the practices of the head coach, making it even more essential that sports staff know about pre existing conditions.
“If medical conditions aren’t brought to attention, the injury could increase in severity when the athlete gets to college due to the rigorous workout and class schedule of a DI institution,” said N.C. State softball senior Macauley Prickett.
But for some student-athletes, an athletic scholarship is the only way to get a college education, and they don’t want to risk not being able to get a degree.
“I believe that (student-athletes) shouldn’t have to disclose their medical information prior to signing (a National Letter of Intent),” said N.C. State men’s swimming and diving senior Harrison Mitchell. “If injury occurs after the process has begun, then the coaches’ or recruiters’ choice should not be affected by it.”
“Coaches shouldn’t use the athlete’s medical condition as a leverage tool,” said N.C. State cheerleading senior Derrick Maisonet. “The focus should be on benefitting the athlete in the long run and making sure they get the right care while at the university.”
If the athletic department finds a student-athlete to not be medically cleared upon arrival at the university, it does not count against the team’s limited number of scholarships. But the consequences of not reporting can negatively affect the athletic program.
“It doesn’t hurt the team in that way, but then they’ve used a spot on that person thinking they can compete, and they’re a man down,” Ford said.
Coaches sign student athletes to fill a finite number of spots of the roster for a season.
“It may be too late at that point to sign another athlete,” Ford said.
But according to NCAA rules, if an injury occurs after the student-athlete’s participation in countable athletically related activities in the sport, that student-athlete will count against the team’s limited number of scholarships for that school year. After that year, the coach gets that scholarship back to recruit to fill that empty spot on the roster.
The medically disqualified student-athlete then has a decision to make.
That person can decide to stay at the university as a regular student. The athletic department will continue to pay the scholarship money the student signed for, but the student will no longer be an athlete.
Or the person can search for a university that will allow him or her to play despite the injury that was previously disqualifying.
“If they have their heart set on athletics, N.C. State will sign a release form that allows them to transfer,” Ford said.
According to the athletic trainer, N.C. State Athletics is conservative about clearing student athletes with injuries.
“It’s all about what’s relevant and what’s the associated risk. There is some flexibility,” the athletic trainer said. “But a championship didn’t mean more to me than your life and your health.”
“It was hard to deal with and accept,” Palmer said. “But your health should come before your sport. Your health should come before everything.”