Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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It depends what the meaning of “reckless” is

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A Louisville, Ky., grand jury indicts a high school football coach on reckless homicide charges related to the heat stroke death of a 15-year-old during practice. While a report compiled for the American Football Coaches Association finds 114 football-field heat stroke deaths from 1960 to 2007, apparently Pleasure Ridge Park coach David Stinson is the first to face criminal charges for one. First the story, and then the question of what it means for anyone coaching youth sports:

From the Associated Press:

A high school football coach should have realized a player could collapse from heat stroke in the broiling weather during practice, a prosecutor said in announcing reckless homicide charges in a youth’s death.

A grand jury indicted David Jason Stinson on Thursday in the death of Max Gilpin, 15, a sophomore offensive lineman at Louisville’s Pleasure Ridge Park High School. It was Stinson’s first year as head coach when the player collapsed and had trouble breathing.

Heat exposure deaths happen occasionally in football from the sandlot to the pros, the most famous example being Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer in 2001. Lawsuits have been filed in many of those cases, but no evidence can be found that a coach has ever been charged in the deaths.

The heat index, used to measure how hot it feels based on temperature and humidity, reached 94 degrees during the Aug. 20 practice. Gilpin’s temperature reached 107 degrees at the hospital, authorities said. He died three days later.

No autopsy was performed, but the coroner’s office said it appeared Gilpin died of complications from heat stroke.

The reckless homicide charge means grand jurors didn’t find that Stinson’s actions intentional or malicious, said Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel, but that “a reasonable man should have realized something like this could have occurred.”

Stinson’s attorney, Alex Dathorne, told The Associated Press that the coach maintains his innocence and looks forward to “bringing out the whole story.”

I’m no legal scholar, but I highly doubt David Stinson will get convicted. Among the reasons is, if what his attorney says is true, the grand jury indicted only on the word of one police detective.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has stated guidelines for handling extreme heat. At a 94-degree heat index, the standards are: “Provide ample amounts of water. This means that water should always be
available and athletes should be able to take in as much water as they desire. Optional water breaks every 30 minutes for 10 minutes in duration. Ice-down towels for cooling. Watch/monitor athletes carefully for necessary action.”

You can argue if the standards for a heat index of 95 degrees of fewer are sufficient, but if the coaches followed them, that would seem to speak against being “reckless. (I say coaches because Gilpin’s divorced parents have filed suit against Stinson and five assistants, the latter of whom were not indicted.) Another question that is going to come up, and I hope Max Gilpin’s parents are ready for, is whether the player was on any medications or supplements that would have made him more susceptible to heat stroke. Notably, ephedra has been fingered as a culprit in some cases. Or, had Gilpin had a physical from his family doctor and been cleared to play — or hadn’t been cleared? Did he have an enlarged heart? I’ll note again that no autopsy was performed.

I don’t bring this up to sully the name of an innocent teen, but someone is going to ask why Gilpin and no one else suffered from heat stroke that day. (According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, a second player had to be hospitalized for two days after collapsing.)

Of course, if Stinson didn’t follow those basic standards, and if he was being an extreme hard-ass about the heat, then he indeed might be in for some serious trouble. (And I’ve heard a few rumblings the coaches were chiding players for taking water breaks, but nothing is confirmed. On the link above, you can certainly get all sorts of gossip from the reader comments.)

So what are we youth coaches supposed to take from this? Should we be afraid of being sued or indicted if a player is severely injured, or dies?

The biggest problem for most youth coaches is that we get exactly zero training on injury prevention and procedures. At the lower levels, it’s hard sometimes to find enough warm bodies to coach, much less take the time (and the budget) to make them sit through medical training. Or have paramedics at the ready at every practice and game. Statistically speaking, 114 football-related heat stroke deaths, which tragic in every case, over 47 years on all levels is miniscule.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t like some guidelines on what to do if, say, one of my players hits his head on the court and blacks out. (Though I already know what I wouldn’t do, what my teen-aged cousin’s hockey coach did after he came off the ice puking and unaware of his surroundings — send him back on the ice a few minutes later. I think, I hope, we all know what a concussion is now, and that it’s more serious than we once thought.) Both the coach and the player don’t want to sit out, and often the player is the one heavily begging to stay out there.

The best I can do right now is try to read my players to see how they’re feeling. I have one player on my basketball team who has arch troubles, and I make sure to ask him frequently how his feet are feeling, and watch how he plays to look for evidence his feet are bothering him. Unfortunately, sometimes you never know something is wrong until tragedy strikes. I was playing in a basketball league (we’re talking adults here) where a 41-year-old lawyer died on the court from a massive heart attack. He looked OK until the moment he dropped.

We’ve come a long way since Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys being denied water in the Texas desert, and I hope for everyone’s sake that Stinson wasn’t skimping on the water breaks or making Gilpin run extra drills or something.

If anything, more education of coaches, athletes and parents on the risk of injury and signs of severe problems will be a greater help to prevent more Max Gilpins than indicting coaches will.

UPDATE, 2:55 p.m., 1-23-09: Upon further review (and hearing more sources chat about the coaches’ alleged conduct), if indeed the coaches were denying water to players, then they deserve everything they get thrown at them. I know you want to develop tougher players, but if you’re denying water breaks in the equivalent of 94-degree heat, that IS reckless. During my basketball practices, I insist my players take water breaks, and if they tell me they don’t need water, I make them drink some anyway. If a coach is allowing water breaks and otherwise monitoring his or her players, then to me a player collapsing is not a sign of reckless disregard as a result of the coach.

2 Responses

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  1. Certainly negligence is an issue in this and similar cases, but also is a lack of emergency first aid for hyperthermia (heat stroke). It is imperative that the athlete’s core body temperature be lowered IMMEDIATELY in conjunction with rapid transfer to a medical facility.

    Minutes count.

    Ice baths and hyperthermia vests would have made a significant difference in the outcome. No mention has been made as to what, if any steps were taken.

    More education on this subject could be beneficial to all sports participants.

    Rob Goodwin

    January 24, 2009 at 10:42 am

  2. […] relieved of his coaching duties, goes on trial Aug. 31 on a criminal charge of reckless homicide. He is believed to be the first coach indicted because of a player’s death in practice. (Stinson, some assistants and administrators, and Louisville’s school district are being […]

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