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Friday, August 28, 2009
Commonwealth of Kentucky v. David Jason Stinson: Should Coaches be held Criminally Liable for Athletes' Deaths?

I have a column on concerning the first case in which a high school coach has been criminally charged with a player's death. The trial will begin on Monday. Here's an excerpt of the column:

* * *
Former Pleasure Ridge High School (Louisville, Ky.) football coach Jason Stinson faces charges for reckless homicide and wanton endangerment, felonies which each carry maximum five-year prison sentences, for the August 2008 death of sophomore offensive lineman Max Gilpin. Gilpin collapsed at the end of a series of wind sprints held in allegedly 94-degree temperatures. When taken to the emergency room, Gilpin's body temperature was reportedly 107 degrees. Gilpin died three days later.

Other facts remain in dispute and will be contested during Stinson's trial, which is scheduled to begin on Monday. According to prosecutors, Stinson, despite having been trained on the dangers of heat-related illnesses, subjected Gilpin to "barbaric conditioning" in the form of the sprints, which Stinson allegedly used to punish and motivate underperforming players. There are also conflicting reports as to whether, and to what extent, Stinson allowed players to drink water during certain moments of practice.* * *

. . . [I]f Stinson is convicted or pleads guilty to a lesser offense that carries a prison sentence, his case could produce major changes in high school football and high school sports in general. It could, for instance, compel high school coaches and school districts to treat players with much more care, and to provide them with added safeguards, such as ensuring that trainers are on-hand at all times, that coaches have undergone extensive sensitivity training, and that purportedly harsh practice conditions (e.g., denying a player water at any time; ordering sprints in hot and humid conditions) be eliminated. Practices could thus become more safe though also more regulated and potentially more costly, including for the taxpayers who fund local sports.

Stinson's case may also force coaches and school districts to condition the playing of sports on players' passage of rigorous, possibly invasive health tests. While players are already subject to physicals, the prospect of criminal sanction and prison time accompanying the death of a player may spur coaches to demand greater certainty of players' physical health. In that same vein, the profession of high school football coaching may take a hit. If a player's death on the practice field can lead to a coach facing criminal prosecution, the profession suddenly becomes a much less attractive one. The added possibility of tort liability under a wrongful death civil claim only amplifies that point.


Frankly, this is a very well-written article and presents the issues in a very fair way. The case should have ramifications nationwide regardless of the outcome. My only thoughts are that the prosecution's use of the phrase "barbaric conditions" has really put them in a bad position. I mean they had better be able to show barbarism--they are in football country after all. Also, I was pleased to see that you noted that things could become more "costly." That will likely happen as a consequence of this case: insurance rates go up; costs to attend seminars go up; and in a down economy, it has gotten to the point now that in order to even participate in high school sports, parents are being charged a fee (kind of like a privilege tax) because the taxpayers can't (or won't) fund more and more when they have less and less, not to mention (unfortunately) all of the costs associated with the overdue compliance of bringing girls' facilities on par with the boys...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/28/2009 11:38 AM  

I could not agree more. No matter what happens in this case, it may serve to create greater standards of protection and limit the powers of a coach to impose workout conditions that may be dangerous or reckless. Demonstrating criminal liability in the field of athletics has traditionally been difficult because of standards of proof, but the fact that a criminal charges have been brought should serve as a wake-up call to any risk manager that some coaches' actions may need to be curtailed.

Blogger Mark Conrad -- 8/28/2009 12:25 PM  

Anonymous and Mark,

Thank you both for those kind words, I appreciate them. I agree with both of you that this case could prove extremely meaningful for high school football programs across the country (and also, to some extent, other high school sports' programs and football programs at other levels).

Mike McCann

Blogger Michael McCann -- 8/30/2009 6:38 PM  

Even though the author of this article did not specify, I assume from the context and the way the charges are referenced (criminal) and talk of possible prison time, that this case is being brought by the District Attorney, and is not a civil suit brought by the boy's parents? The DA must think he has some solid evidence, or they would have declined to prosecute.

The only parable I have to offer here, is that when I was in the Army, in basic training, two soldiers died in the hot Southern summer, while training. Both drill sergeants were relieved of duty, then kicked out of the Army. If this coach did anything wrong at all with regards to this young man, denying water, forcing him to exert himself in 94 degree heat as a punishment, what makes any of you think he should get off scott-free, simply because "it could be any coach that this happened to"?

"Everybody does it" doesn't make it right.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/31/2009 7:08 AM  

Anonymous 8/31/09,

I'm not sure if you read the entire piece, but it discusses how the trial, which begins today, is a criminal one and how it concerns counts of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment, both of which carry maximum five-year prison sentences. The column also discusses the criminal elements of reckless homicide and wanton endangerment that prosecutors need to prove beyond reasonable a doubt.

As referenced in the column, there is a separate wrongful death civil litigation, which is not examined in-depth in this piece, though will be in a future column.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 8/31/2009 9:26 AM  

I'm thinking Anon 7:08 was still waking up.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/31/2009 9:51 AM  

Anon 7:08,

I don't even understand the analogy. Being relieved of duty and discharged is not the same as spending up to 5 yrs. in prison.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 8/31/2009 10:58 AM  

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Blogger doll -- 9/14/2009 3:44 AM  

Hot off the press:

Anonymous Anonymous -- 9/17/2009 6:29 PM  

Stinson was found not guilty on all counts yesterday. Just an FYI for anyone wanting to know the outcome.

Blogger Pbenn001 -- 9/18/2009 9:41 AM  

My curiousity is this? What about the parents responsibilities? If my son or daughter is sick, especially with high heat, common sense tells you to have him sit the practice or the game out. So why is it the coaches fault? My understanding that the player was also taking supplements? Again, how is this the coaches fault? Would it not be the parents responsibilities to find how the player is going to react. What had this been a regular day. No heat. Let say it was in the rain with a muddy day. Would it be "barbaric"? How many parents know their kids are taking performance enhancing drugs, regardless if it is a supplement or not, yet they allow it to happen. When are parents going to start coming up to the plate and quit blaming coaches, teachers for the sons/daughters consequences?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 9/22/2009 11:38 AM  

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