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Top youth sports stories of the year, part II (the final five)

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First, an apology. When I posted stories Nos. 10-6 for the top 10 youth sports stories of the year, I wrote that the next day, I would post No. 5-1. The first post went up Dec. 28. No second post Dec. 29. Or Dec. 30. Or Dec. 31. Or Jan. 1. I should know better than to promise on a schedule.

I presumed that news on the youth sports beat would be slow (it wasn’t), and that somehow having four kids home on winter vacation would be less than hectic (it wasn’t). Also, I was a tad late getting back from my 1o-year-old daughter’s basketball game today. I was accosted by an angry mother, the same one who tried to rush me at the bench once before, who wanted to know, in my role as a coach, if I knew what the fuck I was doing.

Actually, it was a bit entertaining, her screaming and swearing at me on the walk in front of our gym, as other parents and children stopped in their tracks to watch the entertainment (I, not she, got this view because I was facing the parking lot). Early on, the mom’s boyfriend implored her to get into the car (they had someplace they had to be), but then he turned on another guy when he started yelling at the mom to shut up. Fortunately, no riot ensued, although I wasn’t sure for a minute.

Without getting into all the details about her dispute — mainly, it was about how I was treating her son, the team’s best player and admittedly its biggest hothead — I will say that by the time the director of the basketball program rushed out in 5-degree weather to check out what was going on (he was called out by a dad from my team, who thankfully threw in that I was a nice guy), the conversation had turned civil. The mom just wanted to get her piece out, and she was willing to listen when I explained why I did what I did, that the point of this league wasn’t winning today, and that I hoped I was preparing her son for a leadership role on his school team. Or maybe she was freezing cold and couldn’t summon the energy anymore. I had two advantages: my Upper Peninsula of Michigan blood, and a much warmer coat. Maybe Mike Leach could have learned a little something, no?

So now, here I am, safe at home, no one yelling at me (yet), so I’ll take a few minutes to sum up the top five youth sports stories of the year.

5. Girls, girls, girls

Nearly 40 years after the passage of Title IX, requiring schools receiving public money to offer equal opportunities (in sports and elsewhere) to boys and girls, we’re still fighting about what that means. The most notable cases were in Indiana and Florida. The Indiana High School Athletic Association folded quickly, and correctly, when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 14-year-old girl who wanted to try out for her high school baseball team, but was told state rules required her to play the “equal” sports of girls’ softball. She didn’t make the team, but of course that wasn’t the point.

By the way, with no litigation involved Emily Montgomery of Vincennes (Ind.) Rivet played left field for the school’s baseball team, which made it to the Class A state final before losing. Montgomery also played in the Class A state finals for girls’ basketball, too. Her brother asked her to join the baseball team for a practical reason — the school has only 92 students and otherwise would have had only 10 members.

Meanwhile, in Florida, things were a little more contentious.

A lawsuit filed by lead attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer, fought the state high school athletic association’s scheduling cuts to all sports except football and cheerleading, in the name of saving money as the state’s property tax collections went south with the housing market (which was no longer coming south). The lawsuit alleged Title IX violations because the cuts were not made equally. Originally, the Florida High School Athletic Association said they were, because, get this, football officially is a coed sport. Hey, just because only three girls out of 36,000 players are on rosters isn’t because chicks aren’t invited! (And you can’t cut cheerleading, because if you have football, you gotta have cheerleaders.)

Dutifully embarrassed, the FHSAA dropped the football-as-coed-sport nonsense and stopped the statewide cuts. Although, speaking of cuts, that brings us to our No. 4 story…

4. The economy’s effect on youth sports

Florida was one of multiple states that looked at cutting sports schedules statewide as a means of saving money. Although few did, a lot of cuts happened at the local level, most famously in Grove City, Ohio, where all extracurricular activities were cut after voters multiple times rejected tax increases (and then came back when they finally approved one). Schools nationwide implemented pay-to-play programs, meaning students were charged a fee when they previously were not in order to play sports.

However, the down economy did not necessarily mean that fewer children were playing. In fact, many cities nationwide were building large youth sports facilities in hopes of attracting tournaments that could fill up local hotels and restaurants, and fill up tax coffers hurting from the closing of the local plant.

3. 100-0

Dallas Morning News reporter Barry Horn happened to look at his newspaper’s girls’ basketball box scores and noticed something unusual: Covenant School 100, Dallas Academy 0. So he did a nice little story about Dallas Academy, a private school geared toward kids with learning disabilities, and one that has had athletic success. About 663,000 first-day page views later, 100-0 was a Rorschach test about sportsmanship. Did Covenant coach Micah Grimes run up the score by playing pressing defense for too long? Or was Dallas Academy responsible for preparing a team well enough so it didn’t get smoked 100-0? (Complicating matters was that Dallas Academy often was portrayed as a team of Special Olympians, when in fact the disabilities ran to the likes of ADHD and dyslexia.)

Blowout scores are endemic to girls’ basketball, where the quality of talent, coaching and commitment vary widely from school to school in comparison to boys’ sports. But all the bad publicity about 100-0, and Grimes’ public statement against his school’s apology for it, led to the coach’s firing in January, two weeks after the game. Meaning, Mike Leach was not the only Texas coach in 2009 to get canned after refusing to apologize.

A post-script: in December, Dallas Academy got its first victory since 2001-02, aided by a new team member who scored 31 of its 34 points in a 34-33 triumph. Another post-script: Dallas Academy also dropped out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, meaning that Covenant was no longer forced to face it in association play.

2. The trial of David Jason Stinson

Stinson was indicted last January in Louisville, Ky., on reckless homicide charges after one his Pleasure Ridge Park High School football players, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed and died in an August 2008 practice. Gilpin was ruled to have died from overheating, and Stinson (by then the former Pleasure Ridge Park coach) became what was believed to be the first coach in the nation to face criminal charges for a player’s practice- or game-related death.

Youth and school coaches nationwide watched Stinson’s case closely (and some did more than that, contributing to his legal defense fund) for fear that they could be next if something terrible happened on their watch. After all, the case against Stinson was built mainly on him making his players run “gassers” at the end of a practice in 94-degree heat-index weather, and Stinson’s bluster that he was going to keep his team running until somebody quit, and his allegedly denying players water. Sounds harsh, but it also sounds like what 90 percent of coaches have done at some point.

It turned out that it took the jury only 90 minutes to acquit Stinson, in part because of evidence Gilpin took Adderall and creatine, both of which can cause quicker dehydration. (A civil suit filed by Gilpin’s parents, however, is still in play.) Still, his case, if nothing else, got a lot of coaches and authorities to take heat and dehydration more seriously, including in Kentucky, where the state legislature beefed up rules on access to trainers and handling sports in the heat.

But even despite the tragedy of a teenager’s death, Stinson and Gilpin didn’t turn out to be the top youth sports story of the year, or even the top youth sports-related health issue of the year. That honor goes to…

1. Concussions

No longer is a player who gets a little foggy someone who is “dinged.” From pro leagues on down, concussions — brain injuries — are being taken seriously more than they ever have. Let’s put it this way: had alleged prima donna Adam James been allegedly locked in a room by his head coach, Mike Leach, because he had a bruised sternum, Leach might be coaching Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, being played as I type this, instead of preparing his lawsuit against the school for firing him.

Washington this year became the first state to require young athletes diagnosed with concussions to get medical clearance before returning to action, and bills regarding concussion safety have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. It’s not just football players suffering — one girl speaking out in favor of the Senate bill is a 16-year-old who quit basketball after 11 concussions. Eleven!

Concussions aren’t just a story confined to 2009. It goes to the top spot because they will be a topic of conversation and debate for years to come. Already, there’s discussion of what the future of football will be, or how long it has one, because of the prevalance of concussions.

Also, I can’t leave this topic without acknowledging the hard work of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, who has covered concussions thoroughly for years, and might just be single-handedly responsible for this whole conversation we’re having about them. There are going to be people who literally will owe their lives to him.

As the Stinson turns (big break for the defense edition)

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player-thumbIt’s a shame that Max Gilpin, the 15-year-old who died after a football practice last August in Louisville, Ky., is growing more and more of a footnote in the aftermath of his demise. But that’s how it goes when stuff like this happens.

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

A Bullitt County circuit judge this morning [Tuesday] issued a domestic violence order against Jeffery Dean Gilpin, the father of the Pleasure Ridge Park football player who died after he collapsed at a practice.

During a court hearing, Gilpin’s wife, Lois Louise Gilpin, alleged that her husband had been abusive in the past and had recently threatened harm if she did anything to “dishonor” her stepson, Max Gilpin, who died at a practice on Aug. 23.

Jeff Gilpin, represented by attorneys, denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, Judge Elise Spainhour told Jeff Gilpin to avoid all contact with his wife and to enter anger counseling, along with grief counseling. The pair plan to divorce, they said.

“I’m very sorry you lost your child,” Spainhour told Jeff Gilpin. “You need to try to salvage your life. You don’t want to live in a sea of anger.”

Gilpin already has one ex-wife: Max’s mother, who is joining him in filing a civil lawsuit against former coach David Jason Stinson, as well as other coaches and the Louisville school district. They filed on the basis of wrongful death, saying Stinson denied water to players and pushed them too hard on a day when the heat index reached 94 degrees.

But what really made Max Gilpin’s case stand out is that Stinson is facing an August court date after a grand jury indicted him on reckless homicide charges as a result of the player’s death.

Presumably, Jeff Gilpin’s home life shouldn’ t have anything to do with Stinson’s guilt or innocence. But for sure Stinson’s lawyers will be poring through his divorce filings (if they haven’t already) looking for anything they can use. Already, Jeff Gilpin did them a favor during his civil trial deposition by saying he wasn’t sure that Stinson denied anyone water — a key fact on which the civil and criminal cases turn.

Stinson’s attorneys are going to be especially aggressive not only because they have a client to defend, but also because they know (thanks to the contributions they’re receiving from coaches nationwide) that Stinson’s guilt or innocence is going to have a profound effect on coaches’ authority. Especially their authority to inflict physical punishment like “gassers,” the sprint drills Stinson was alleged to have his players run because of a perceived lack of hustle, a coaching technique as old as coaching itself. With that at stake, and with his father’s personal foibles coming into the spotlight, it’s unfortunate Max Gilpin himself is more and more of an afterthought and symbol than a boy who died tragically.

The deposition of David Jason Stinson

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The Louisville Courier-Journal has gotten the video of the deposition of David Jason Stinson, who has three names because I can’t figure out which one he goes by. Stinson has pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide in the death of Max Gilpin, a 15-year-old who collapsed in the heat during one of Stinson’s Pleasure Ridge Park High football practices last August. He’s also among those Gilpin’s parents are suing in a separate civil case, which is the subject of the video deposition.

If you haven’t clicked on the link yet, I’ll save you the (lack of) drama: Stinson’s lawyer says he can’t answer any questions because of the criminal case. Most depositions last longer than a Marmoset song.

Much better than the David Jason Stinson Experience.

Meanwhile, a Kentucky legislator has introduced a bill that would require ice pools on hand during high school practices and games when the heat index of over 94 degrees, according to the C-J. The legislator acknowledges its chances of passing are slim, not so much because the Kentucky High School Athletic Association already has standards how to handle the heat, but because there is only three weeks left in the legislative session.

Water, water everywhere

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In the wake of the Jason Stinson indictment, coaches everywhere wish to inform you they won’t deny your children water and kill them.

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The watering can at your child’s next football practice.

The reckless homicide charge filed against Louisville high school football coach Jason Stinson is in part based on witness testimony that he denied his players’ requests for water, thus leading to the heat stroke-related death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin during summer practice. Stinson pleaded not guilty and denies he withheld water.

Whatever the case, it’s becoming clearer that coaches, players and parents, even those who are aware of the need for frequent water breaks, underestimate just how much water their children need to stay hydrated, particularly during hot weather.

As a youth basketball coach, often I’m begging kids to use a water break for drinking water. Not that anyone has collapsed, or come close, but I have kid who say they’re not thristy, or who don’t feel like going. I don’t know how much water they need, exactly, but I do know none is too little. When kids come to the bench during a game, I have them drink water, and I don’t deny any kid who needs to run to the drinking fountain because he or she didn’t bring a bottle.

The point about underestimating water needs was made very well by a caller to the NPR show “Talk of the Nation,” a man who identified himself as a football coach from Chillicothe, Ohio. The Jan. 27 show was devoted to the Jason Stinson indictment.

The caller, who comes in fairly early in the show, says he’s coached football for nine years, and that he is insistent that players take frequent breaks, as well as drink if they’re waiting in line to do a drill in summer practice. Even still, he has had kids succumb to heat exhaustion, and had one case of heat stroke that required the coaches to strip a player down to his shorts and stick him in a cold shower.

Why? Because in this coach’s estimation, the water consumed during practice takes care of only about 15 percent of a player’s hydration needs.

I don’t know out of what orifice he pulled that figure, but it sounds good. He recommends that players drink plenty of water before and after practice. That way, you’re keeping your body consistently hydrated and reducing the risk of overheating. That sounds like good advice for any sport.

The death of Max Gilpin: was it a crime?

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For all his troubles, shit-canned Covenant School coach Micah Grimes of 100-zip fame at least can feel good he’s not Jason David Stinson.

As I mentioned here a few days ago, Stinson, the head football coach at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky., was indicted Jan. 22 on reckless homicide charges after one of his players, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed and died during practice. Though no autopsy was performed, Gilpin was deemed to have died of heat stroke. His temperature reached 107 degrees on a day with a 94-degree heat index. Stinson is believed to be the first coach indicted based on the death of one of his players during practice or a game.

player-thumbBefore I do a bloodless lawyer-type analysis of what’s going on — which has to be done considering Gilpin’s parents have sued and because of the criminal case — I’ll state the obvious: this is a horrible tragedy for everyone involved. Even as a parent, I can only imagine the devastation, heartache and hurt Max Gilpin’s parents must feel. Even as a youth coach, I can only imagine the guilt — not the criminal kind — and regret Stinson must feel. Not to mention how Gilpin’s teammates and friends, especially those who saw him collapse Aug. 20 only to die three days later, must feel.

However, because the legal system is involved, because the supporters of Gilpin and Stinson, as well as Gilpin’s family and Stinson himself, are being very public about their version of events, and because a conviction of Stinson could have profound effects (good and bad) on how youth coaches conduct their business, a bloodless lawyer-type analysis is what is going to happen.

(By the way, I don’t want to be like Nancy Grace here, going on and on about Caylee Anthony and Natalee Holloway and any other white woman with two e’s at the end of her first name, screaming at the camera and at her guests. I’m going back and forth between Dallas Academy and the Kentucky death because those are the biggest youth sports stories going at the moment. Plus, I’m not going to yell at anybody. At least, not until I get my webcam and start v-logging.)

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This is why I haven’t posted my picture yet.

In Sunday’s Louisville Courier-Journal, Gilpin’s parents told their side of the story. Gilpin’s father, Jeff, said he arrived at the end of practice to see players running, and was told the coach was upset because they hadn’t practiced hard enough, and had not come back soon enough from a water break. He said it was 18 to 25 minutes before a coach suggested calling 911. He didn’t think of blaming the coaches initially, but he and his ex-wife, Michele Crockett (Max’s mother) changed their minds.

Gilpin said he wanted to support the coaches, some of whom “were the fathers of Max’s best friends.” But in the months since, he has felt a growing need to find out why Max died. After the Jefferson County grand jury’s decision to indict Stinson, Gilpin “felt betrayed by the coach, and I felt sad for Max.”

“If they found enough criminal evidence to prosecute him, I want him to be prosecuted,” Gilpin said.

Crockett said the indictment “was like someone was finally listening” to her desire to pursue the truth.

“This is not something that I pushed or conjured up,” she said. “I just want to know what happened.”

Gilpin and Crockett also say they are frustrated that the school district’s investigation hasn’t been completed.

“I don’t understand the holdup — it’s been five months,” Crockett said.

The district’s investigation is continuing, spokeswoman Lauren Roberts said Friday. Superintendent Sheldon Berman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Jeff Gilpin also addressed rumors about medications Max was taking. Yes, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Max was taking creatine, a muscle builder, but stopped one month before practice. And Max was taking Adderall, commonly prescribed for ADHD. The story doesn’t say he was diagnosed with it, but Jeff Gilpin said Max’s Adderall prescription was noted on his school physical forms.

Why does it matter what Max would have been taking? Because one side effect of creatine AND Adderall is dehydration. I’m sure Stinson’s lawyers will be pouncing on that to explain why Max, and only Max, suffered severely at that day’s practice. (Another player collapsed in the heat, but recovered quickly. No other team members reported suffering any heat-related medical problems.)

It seems like any criminal case will rest on whether Stinson denied water in violation of Kentucky High School Athletic Association rules governing water breaks during extreme heat. (The Louisville school district says he didn’t.) It also could rest on whether Stinson knew about Max Gilpin’s supplement and medication history, and failed to heed warnings that perhaps he needed extra water. After all, Stinson is hardly the first coach to call for running, even extra running, on a hot day. Particularly in preseason practice, the workouts are as much about conditioning as they are learning how to play football. You have to know as a coach and teammate how much activity a player can stand.

So I highly doubt Stinson will get convicted.

However, I don’t let him off the hook. When it’s a 94-degree heat index, common sense says players under pounds of pads, or even players who aren’t, need extra water breaks. Also, punishing players for not practicing hard enough in that weather is a huge injury risk. I’m sure Stinson, a former high school and college football player, got put through that wringer numerous times, but that doesn’t mean it was right, nor that it is even effective. I’m not moved by Stinson and his coaches’ reported statement that they were going to make the players run until some quit the team — that’s the kind of coach bloviation that’s endemic to preseason workouts. However, I am moved by the idea that Stinson might have been ignorant that there’s a fine line between pushing your team to its limits and pushing them for the sake of being an asshole.

Speaking of assholery, while I understand Stinson has supporters of his own, the mantra that he is a “man of God” makes me want to run laps in the heat until I vomit.

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God wants you to keep coaching. (Photo illustration appears on a Facebook group supporting Stinson.)

If you look at the video that is posted with this Courier-Journal story on a rally outside Stinson’s home, you’ll see how uncomfortably close the cult of the coach rubs up against the Christian faith. Stinson, who did not organize the rally, reads a verse of scripture. A supporter has a sign saying “Trust the Lord.” Stinson makes a point of saying no matter what happens, “God is good.”

Um, Coach Stinson, as far as I know, God’s name is not on the indictment sheet, so His is not the goodness on trial here.

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