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After a player's death, taking heat more seriously

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player-thumbLast Aug. 20, on an afternoon in which the heat index reached 94, 15-year-old Max Gilpin (right) collapsed with a 107-degree temperature after running sprints at the end of a preseason high school football practice in Louisville, Ky. Three days later, he died.

This was rare, this was tragic, but this was not unheard of. According to a report compiled for the American Football Coaches Association, there were 114 heat stroke-related deaths at all levels of football from 1960 to 2007. What’s most notable about Gilpin’s death is what happened to the coach, Jason Stinson of Pleasure Ridge Park High, who ordered him to run those gassers. Stinson, later 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 sued by Gilpin’s divorced parents.)

Sad to say, it’s not Gilpin’s death that has suddenly has brought out a lot of worry about making sure players can handle heat, including today’s release of guidelines from the National Athletic Trainers Association designed to ease players into shape during the heat through limits on first-days practices, rather than whipping them into shape right away. It’s the possibility Stinson could be serving hard time — and that the principals, superintendents and, yes, trainers, are going to get dragged down in their wake. That’s why football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson.

Most state high school athletic associations, including Kentucky’s, eevn before Gilpin’s death had standards on handling heat, including recommendations on water breaks. (A key part of the Stinson case is whether the coach refused his players water breaks the day Gilpin collapsed.)

But after Gilpin, in many states those standards are being re-examined. Meanwhile, in Kentucky it’s now state law that at least one person attending a high school practice or game must have completed a 10-hour course on handling emergencies, including heat stroke.

It might look unseemly and disrespectful that football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson. Surely, they have self-preservation in mind. On the other hand, any youth coach is now going to be worried, rightfully, that they will be held liable for anything untoward that happens under their watch. What happens if I’m coaching one of my kids’ basketball teams, and someone collapses? Is it my fault? I don’t run my practices like Bear Bryant’s infamous Junction Boys camp.

But if Stinson gets convicted, I could face the very real risk of being charged myself if something horrible happened on my watch. After all, aren’t I supposed to know my players’ medical condition, or how hard I should push them? You know how many times I’ve gotten medical information on kids in four years of coaching? Zero.

That’s probably not going to happen, whatever Stinson’s fate. Though it’s not helping Stinson’s case that his old employer, the Jefferson County Public Schools, appears to be stonewalling the prosecution by being excruciatingly slow in turning over its own report on Gilpin’s death. (The school district collected the health forms for Gilpin, and would have been the ones to tell Stinson that he was taking Adderall, which can accelerate dehydration. However, it would not have known about Gilpin’s use of creatine, which also can accelerate dehydration.)

Actually, I highly doubt Stinson will get convicted. Just a hunch. But if nothing else, the threat of Stinson’s conviction — much more than Max Gilpin’s death — will get coaches and administrators to take a closer look at making sure that everyone is wiser in the heat.

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