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Update on the Stinson trial: Are the jurors watching "The Biggest Loser"?

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player-thumbOn Thursday, the jury is scheduled to start deliberating the case of David Jason Stinson, on trial in Louisville on reckless homicide and wanton endangerment charges in the August 2008 death of one of his players. 15-year-old Max Gilpin, who died three days after overheating at one of Stinson’s Pleasure Ridge Park High School practices. I would say, as said numerous times before the trial, that the chances of convicting Stinson are slim. Not that it has anything to do with the trial, but those thoughts intensified after watching a recent episode of a weight-loss show that featured people getting yelled at and collapsing of heat stroke.

You can go to the site of Stinson’s hometown Louisville Courier-Journal for the best blow-by-blow coverage, including video archives and live testimony. In my never-earned-a-JD legal opinion, the prosecution’s presentation created plenty of reasonable doubt, with discussion about how Gilpin had a viral infection the day of the fateful practice that had already elevated his body temperature, as well as discussion about his use of Adderall and creatine, which can accelerate dehydration.

Then there was the county coroner saying he never performed an autopsy because he didn’t see any “malfeasance,” with the coroner and investigators saying this was the first homicide case they could remember where an autopsy hadn’t been performed. (The official ruling is that Gilpin died of septic shock.) Also, the lead investigator said he never talked to any medical professionals. Meanwhile, players testified that while Stinson ran a tough practice in 94-degree heat-index conditions, he did allow water breaks and didn’t time the end-of-practice wind sprints that immediately preceded Gilpin’s collapse — that is, he allowed players to run them at their own pace, an unusual move when a coach is having players run gassers.

To me, these creates plenty of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, which is based on the assertion that Stinson denied his players water breaks in the heat, and thus created the conditions for Gilpin’s death. Not enough reasonable doubt for the judge to uphold a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. But I would be shocked if Stinson got sent to jail.

The case is getting a lot of attention because it’s the first time, that anyone knows of, a coach has been charged for the practice- or game-related death of player. It also has many coaches and organizations, legitimately, looking over their policies about heat safety, medical disclosures and emergency treatment. But it also has coaches at every level fearing whether pushing players to their physical limits is a criminal act.

You don’t have to be a hard-ass to do that — it’s what coaches, such as myself, often do. Sometimes you have players run a little extra to get their attention. You have them do it to get in shape. You have them do it because you want to know how far your players can go, and you want to show them how far they can go if they push themselves. Do some coaches go overboard with it? Oh, yeah. Was Stinson being kind of a dick saying, before Gilpin collapsed, he wasn’t going to stop having the players run until somebody quit? Oh, yeah. But being a dick by its ownself isn’t a crime.

I was thinking of Stinson when I watched Tuesday night’s premiere of the NBC weight-loss reality show, “The Biggest Loser.” Now its eighth season, regular watchers know what’s coming: morbidly obese people pushed beyond what they believe is their physical limits in the name of losing weight and getting healthy. The show’s trainers, particuarly Jillian Michaels, have built brand names out of being tough-as-nails, no-excuses coaches to the show’s contestants.

Two moments in the show had me wondering whether the jurors watched the show, and what they thought. The first came when one of the contestants collapsed near the end of a mile walk/run, which the contestants were told to do before they had even met their trainers. Contestant Tracey Yukich collapsed about 100 yards short of the finish line, saying her legs had turned to jelly. A medic arrived, but instead of treating her right away, he and the other contestants dragged her to the finish for the purported reason that she would have been so disappointed had she not made it. After she “finished,” Yukich’s eyes started rolling to the back of her head, and she was unresponsive. A helicopter had to be called to the scene, and Yukich had to spent the rest of the week in the hospital.

The cause of her problems, which were not mentioned on the show: heat stroke. In many ways, Yukich’s situation was a lot like the way Gilpin’s collapse was described. And like at that practice, Yukich wasn’t whisked off right away — at first there seemed to be some confusion and disbelief that prevented a rush to treatment. And this was on a show packed with medical staff, not a high school football team that may or may not have a trainer present.

You can fault “The Biggest Loser” producers for possibly being the ones who wanted to see Yukich cross the finish line. After all, in a show predicated upon the conceit that even the fattest among us can push ourselves physically, nothing would send America back to Ding Dongs as watching a contestant die before reaching the end of a workout. While I know the producers have a storyline to push, I also know that nothing would get the show canceled faster than someone dying, period. But as to the argument that Stinson and the other coaches didn’t react quickly enough — well, it appears few ever do, even when they have the training to do so.

The second moment on “The Biggest Loser” that had me thinking of Stinson was the relationship between trainer Jillian Michaels and 476-pound Shay Sorrells, the heaviest contestant ever. Michaels has built a lucrative brand off of being a hard-ass, and she was screaming at Sorrells when she quit in the middle of a workout. Now Sorrells is a troubled soul who was in foster care most of her childhood because of a heroin-addicted mother, and at 476 pounds she was being put through a workout that would have a lot of fit people heaving. But Michaels was yelling, calling her a quitter, saying it was time to stop being the victim. There was no mercy.

Funny thing is, the tough-as-nails approach appeared to work. After Michaels ignored Sorrells while she had a good cry outside, Sorrells came back in and finished the workout.

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I’m not going to argue whether Michaels was right in yelling at Sorrells as a means of inspiration. But millions of people, perhaps including Stinson jury members, watch “The Biggest Loser.” Even if they were never yelled at by a football coach, they’re familiar with trainers and coaches who push, cajole, and, yes, yell, as a means of inspiration and drawing out the best in somebody. “The Biggest Loser” is as mainstream as it gets.

Knowing that, it’s hard for me to believe that jurors are going to look at Stinson’s contact and see anything unusual. Does that mean everything he did was all right? Probably not. In the end, Max Gilpin’s death is going to go down as a tragedy that was more about the unique circumstances of a child’s health doing a certain activity on a certain day than it is a referendum on whether coaches should tone it down. If nothing else, Stinson’s trial is causing coaches to re-examine what they do; I know I will. But it won’t send Stinson to prison.

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