For the past month, much of our nation has been gripped by intense heat and humidity. For most of us, it has been uncomfortable and irritating. But for some, it has been deadly. Those who follow football have become morbidly accustomed to the late summer ritual: Every year, it is almost expected that at least one football player will die from heat-related causes before autumn ushers in more humane weather. The deceased are often kids -- high schoolers hoping to make rosters and secure starting positions.
Last week alone, three high school football players died after practices. And as far as investigators can tell, all three deaths have been heat-related.
For years, reformers have tried nearly everything to stem the trend of fatal football practices: mandating water breaks, limiting practice time, shifting practice sessions from midday to early mornings and evenings, practicing less frequently with pads, and who knows what else. But nothing has worked. Kids continue to die.
Perhaps we would see fewer fatalities had Commonwealth of Kentucky v. David Jason Stinson turned out differently. In August of 2008, at Pleasure Ridge High School in Louisville, Ky., during an afternoon football practice, head football coach Jason Stinson made his players run the length of the football field again and again in 94-degree heat because they were not paying attention as he set up drills. It was a scenario that had played out across America at countless high schools for generations, but on that day, Max Gilpin, a 15-year-old sophomore on the team, collapsed and died while running. And, unwilling to accept the senseless death, David Stengel, now Kentucky's Commonwealth Attorney, decided to prosecute Stinson.
The facts, as Sports Illustrated would later report, were ugly. Stinson's own attorneys admitted the coach was being harsh that day, telling his players they would run until somebody quit. Nonetheless, as the prosecution proceeded, Stengel, rather than Stinson, emerged as the villain. He was roundly assailed, both within the community and around the country, as a misguided wimp.
After all, sang the chorus, Stinson was simply engaging in a time-honored football tradition: putting his charges through the sort of workout that separates men from boys. Indeed, Stinson had endured such practices under his college football coach at Louisville, Howard Schnellenberger. And Schnellenberger had endured such practices under his college football coach at Kentucky, Bear Bryant, perhaps the most deified college football coach in American history. Stinson was descended from football royalty; he coached football in the same way Bryant had, and as such he had done nothing wrong. Or so the argument went. In the end, the jury acquitted Stinson, just as Stengel -- who knew how much Louisville, Kentucky loved football -- predicted it would before the trial even began.
But maybe Stengel had the right idea. Law exists to maintain order when the community at large is unable to police itself. And with respect to football -- which leads to far more heat-related deaths than any other sport played in American high schools -- we have proven unable to police ourselves.
There is nothing to indicate prosecution would be appropriate in last week's football practice deaths, and, in fact, until the norms surrounding summer football practices change, any criminal prosecution related to a death at practice (other than one in which there is clear malicious intent) might reasonably be viewed as an ambush.
That is why the norms have to change. Detailed national high school football practice standards should be established to guide coaches with respect to everything from minimum water intake to maximum mileage run based on the prevailing heat index. If a death occurs during a non-conforming practice, prosecution should be a presumption. Conviction, of course, would depend on the facts of the particular case, but the non-conforming practice should be enough to invite legal inquiry.
This proposal will surely be branded, like Stengel was, as wimpy and misguided. But as a civilized society, we cannot continue to reasonably and sickeningly anticipate, year after year, that late summer will mark unnecessary deaths of children on football fields. If it means our high school football players grow marginally softer and less rugged, so be it. I guarantee the scores of parents who have mourned their football-playing children's deaths over the years wouldn't mind, and nor would the scores more who, if history is any guide, will mourn in the future unless we make a change now.
-- N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at Temple University, is the author of "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL."
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