Read today’s column by John Smallwood of the Phadelphia Daily News. He tackles the recent arrest of Kentucky High School football coach David Jason Stinson, who pleaded not guilty on Monday to reckless homicide in the heat-related death of a 15-year-old player who collapsed while running sprints during a football practice in the hot August sun. On Thursday, we’ll have a story with local reaction from area coaches on how this recent development changes their approach.
By John Smallwood
Philadelphia Daily News
No matter what the verdict is, this will be extremely difficult.
On one hand, there is a dead child — 15-year-old Max Gilpin who collapsed and died of heat stroke during practice for a high school football team in Louisville, Ky.
Then there is David Jason Stinson, the coach at Pleasure Ridge Park High who ran practice on that tragic day last August.
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On Jan. 22, a grand jury in Jefferson County indicted Stinson for reckless homicide in the death of Gilpin. Stinson pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Monday.
It is believed to be the first time criminal charges have been brought against a high school or college coach in such an incident. If convicted, Stinson faces a maximum of five years in prison.
A dangerous precedent has been set — one that will flood courtrooms with grieving parents, distraught coaches and destroyed families and communities.
One can only assume that the grand jury followed a strict interpretation of the law.
Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney David Stengel told reporters after the indictment that the grand jury did not see Stinson’s actions as malicious or intentional, but that a reckless homicide charge occurs when a “person fails to perceive a risk that a reasonable person in that situation would have seen,” and that person’s actions cause a death.
After Monday’s arraignment, he added: “This is not about football, this is not about coaches. This is about an adult person who was responsible for the health and welfare of a child.”
Bystanders at the practice reportedly said they heard coaches deny players water and say they would run players until someone quit the team. The reported heat index that day was 94 degrees.
Gilpin and a second player, who spent two days in the hospital, collapsed during practice. Gilpin’s body temperature was recorded at 107 degrees and he died three days later.
Given the attention over the past decade regarding the dangers of dehydration and heat exhaustion, it would be reasonable to say that, if true, Stinson and his staff used horrible judgment in denying players water. But does that rise to the level of a homicide charge?
Denying water as a punishment or giving water breaks as a reward has been a staple of coaching forever.
A primary reason for starting practices in the summer is that the heat theoretically helps condition the body for the vigorous physical activity an athletic season will require.
Coaches push athletes to the boundaries of endurance. Athletes push themselves to those same boundaries.
Virtually anyone who has participated in competitive sports has had a coach who took us to the limits of exhaustion and then asked us to give a bit more.
We’ve all been denied water and practiced hard on scorching days better suited for lounging in a swimming pool or watering hole. We cursed those coaches one moment, then praised them the next for making us stronger, better, more dedicated people.
Perhaps that’s stupid on everybody’s part, but the very nature of competitive sports requires suspending some logic.
As kids, we dream of making the varsity team, becoming a starter, playing in college, making it to the pros.
We show up on those hot summer days weeks before school begins because we want to be a part of something special.
But the hard truth is that competitive athletics are not for every kid.
Teams need to weed out which athletes are good enough. Vigorous practices to see which athletes can handle the grind are the only way to select the best team.
If half the team had collapsed during that practice, then I would think maybe the coaches did something wrong.
But two? How is a coach supposed to know whether those kids are truly in distress, dogging it or simply not good enough to be out there?
If dozens of kids are doing fine, but two appear fatigued, is a coach committing a crime by continuing practice?
It is understandable that Gilpin’s grieving parents are looking for someone to blame for their tragic loss. But there is a very harsh fact: Perhaps their son simply could not handle the stress other players could.
Every year, we get a handful of stories about kids collapsing and dying while trying out for sports.
Each case is tragic, but criminal?
Unless there is a clear level of gross negligence, with prior indications of repetitive misconduct, how do you determine when pushing an athlete becomes a crime?
If a coach runs a practice the same way for 10 straight days, and on the 11th day a player collapses and dies, should that coach be charged?
The prosecutors have gone down a dangerous and scary slope by indicting Stinson.
If we start putting coaches in jail for running hard practices, we should just end competitive athletics, because a hard practice that pushes athletes to excel, work harder and become better than the one competing next to them is the core of what competitive athletics are about.