Friday Night Rights: Arrest of Middletown Coaches Evokes Lessons of Stinson Case
July 13, 2010
Last week, two Middletown (Conn.) assistant football coaches were arrested on misdemeanor charges of second-degree reckless endangerment after allegedly withholding water from players during a strength and conditioning workout. One of the players allegedly collapsed during the workout, which was held in 93 degree temperatures. On that day that the National Weather Service placed sections of the state under a high-heat advisory. Conflicting accounts of the story followed, including that of the school, which claims that the players each had their own water bottle and that the player in question did not collapse, but merely felt queasy and light-headed.
The facts of this case are unclear and the school appears satisfied that the coaches acted appropriately. Nevertheless, it serves as a timely reminder of the liability that coaches, athletic directors and schools face with respect to the safety of their student athletes.
Last fall, Connecticut Sports Law discussed the tragic case of Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Jason David Stinson, the first reported criminal case brought against a coach in connection with a player’s on-field death. The coach was ultimately acquitted. However, the well-publicized case was bound to trigger changes in high school athletics.
With two-a-days fast approaching, properly dealing with hydration and the heat is of the utmost importance. Coaches, Athletic Directors and School Districts should evaluate their programs to ensure that the lessons from the Stinson case have been heeded. Here are some of the changes that Connecticut Sports Law discussed:
1. Legislative and Administrative Changes
The Stinson case gives cause for state legislatures, school boards and interest groups to examine their policies and procedures in an attempt to provide a safer environment for student-athletes. New laws and rules will surely result. In fact, the Commonwealth of Kentucky passed a law aimed at protecting players before the Stinson case was even tried. Coaches in the Commonwealth now must take a 4-hour online course that covers topics from temperature-related illnesses to head, neck and facial injuries.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommended more stringent heat-related guidelines at the high school level. Among the recommendations were eliminating two-a-day practices during the first week of August drills and giving players more time to recuperate.
2. Contractual Changes
Although the Stinson case was prosecuted in criminal court (a civil claim has also been filed), civil claims are much more common at the high school level. Coaches, more cognizant of the liability they face, will want to ensure that their employers will provide indemnification in the event of a lawsuit. Of course, employers are highly unlikely to indemnify coaches for claims that allege beyond mere negligence and rise to the level of recklessness.
Schools, on the other hand, may require that coaches complete first-aid training as a prerequisite to employment. In addition, schools may require that a coach’s practice plans be approved by an athletic director or physician. Although such measures may appear to be over the top, schools and towns recognize that they are likely to be included in any lawsuit against a coach in the event of a player injury or death. Including such requirements into coaching contracts not only encourages compliance, but demonstrates that the school has made an attempt to protect its student-athletes by implementing a specific policy. The existence of such a policy may help protect a school if litigation arises.
3. Coaching Changes
The culture of coaching is bound to change. The tough, old-school methods of toughening a team up – especially in football- are likely to become relics of the past. Two-a-days, if they are even allowed to continue, will be carefully monitored. Coaches will have to consider the heat, whether players are properly hydrated, and whether any players have complained of not feeling well, before ordering wind sprints. Another issue, which was demonstrated by the New York Little League case discussed by Rick Reilly, concerns the teaching elements of coaching. Coaches will not only have to teach players how to tackle, but how to avoid dangerous supplements and recognize signs of heat-related problems in teammates and themselves. Documentation of the lessons taught may be equally important. Smart coaches will keep practice logs detailing the nature of drills, time of practice, performance of players and any complaints of student-athletes.
Daniel B. Fitzgerald, publisher of the blog Connecticut Sports Law (http://ctsportslaw.com), is an attorney at Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, P.C. in New Haven, Connecticut, where he practices in the area of sports law. He can be reached at (203) 786-8309, or at [email protected].