By Dan Salomone, Contributor, PFATS.com
There are two teams within NFL organizations these days. There are the players on the field, and then the people keeping them there.
Both are quicker, better trained, and more specialized than ever, but it wasn’t always that way.
In today’s world of big-time sports, such as the behemoth business the NFL has become, it is hard to imagine the time when professional franchises weren’t the around-the-clock ventures they are now. Rosters and staffs, at one point, were loosely formed and hardly year-round. But as the popularity grew, so did the structure.
Always trying to gain an edge, teams needed to provide the best and most complete care for their product – the players. That’s when medical services and athletic trainers came in, and has resulted in an organization like the Professional Football Athletics Trainers Society evolving from a 14-member outfit into a cutting-edge brotherhood aimed to insure that the highest quality of health care is provided to the league.
“These athletic trainers in the NFL today are really respected specialists,” said Jerry Rhea, the first PFATS President and former Atlanta Falcons Head Athletic Trainer (1969-1994). “It’s not chewing tobacco and carrying a bucket of water anymore. You’ve got to be pretty smart to deal with all the problems both medically and administratively and legally to keep the clubs up and work hand-in-hand with other medical people because now everyone is working with 12 different doctors. There are so many disciplines involved now that the medical people are referred to. They’re invaluable to a club.”
PFATS can be traced back to the early 1960's when a small group of athletic trainers working in the NFL saw an opportunity to share knowledge and techniques on injury prevention and rehabilitation at the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) Annual Meeting and Clinical Symposium. As more and more NFL athletic trainers attended the informal meetings in subsequent years in the mid 1960's, they formed initially as the National Football League Athletic Trainers Society (NFLATS).
By 1968, with the AFL-NFL merger looming, athletic trainers from the AFL joined the session, and team physicians soon followed. A year later, a league official began attending, and by the end of the decade, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle required all teams to send their head athletic trainers to the annual NFL Athletic Trainers Meetings.
In between then and the 1982 strike, the leadership began to take a slightly different path.
Seeing what colleagues in the NBA were doing with the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association (NBATA) and based off informal meetings with the basketball athletic trainers themselves, the group decided branch out from under the NFL and rename it the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society in 1982.
“We tried to really separate ourselves from them as not being under them,” Rhea said. “We were flying by the seat of our pants…but things started to fall into place. So we finally had the vote to decide if we really wanted to do this.”
PFATS then adopted a new comprehensive constitution, and since then, has grown to a membership of 122 as of April 2013. Today, membership in PFATS is limited to those professionally certified in accordance with the most current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement and who are employed full-time as head or assistant athletic trainers by any of the 32 NFL franchises.
“I think [the growth] has been very steady,” said Kent Falb, former longtime head athletic trainer of the Detroit Lions. “It started out with those 14 men in Dallas, and when the leagues merged, the numbers increased. Then the number of assistants began to increase. So it’s been a very consistent incline in the number of members.”
As the society began to grow, so did its reach – from funding National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) scholarships to its signature pre-NFL Scouting Combine meeting to exchange the latest developments through presentations, outside presenters, case studies, and more.
In turn, athletic trainers benefit from all levels.
“It’s kind of a trickle up and a trickle down because the NFL is not exactly a scientific environment; it’s a production environment,” Falb said. “So the athletic trainers gain knowledge by going to these different symposiums and learning new techniques. Then the colleges are where the scientific research is done, so that trickles and comes up. Then some of the things the NFL does, goes down. It’s a reciprocal learning situation. I think it also goes down to high school. There isn’t much trickle-up effect out of high school, but you see treatment being done at the pro level and the college level, and now you’re seeing it being done in high school.”
While the primary purpose of PFATS is to encourage and promote the application of the most advanced knowledge and techniques in the treatment of professional football players, the core concept is more personal.
The society, or the “brotherhood,” is a support system.
“It was to support one another,” Falb said. “If somebody experienced a family loss, a family hardship, or if a member were to lose their job, the other men were there to support them. It was a fraternity, and I can speak to that.”