Prosecutors: Coach's 'Barbaric Practice' Caused Player's Heat Death

Prosecutors: Coachs Barbaric Practice Caused Players Heat DeathABC News
Kentucky high school football coach Jason Stinson, left, told "Good Morning America" today he will not take responsibility for the death of one of his players, Max Gilpin.

Former high school football coach Jason Stinson sat quietly in court for the start of his trial for reckless homicide Tuesday -- in stark contrast to the prosecution's emotional opening arguments that painted him as a rookie, winning-obsessed coach, and those of the defense that said he was nothing more than the victim of a witch hunt.

The trial will decide whether the former Louisville, Ky., coach should be convicted of reckless homicide for the death of a player who collapsed during practice one hot August day last year.

VIDEO: Jason Stinson is on trial for reckless homicide for the death of a player.Play

Prosecutors said the players from Louisville's Pleasure Ridge Park High School were in full gear, and several of them, including 15-year-old Max Gilpin, were denied water and told to keep running wind sprints -- called "gassers" -- in 94 degree heat, even after vomiting. When Gilpin collapsed, prosecutors said Stinson did nothing and "never got within 10 feet of Max Gilpin."

Gilpin died three days later.

"Who started this barbaric practice?" prosecutor Leland Hulbert said. "Who made them run more gassers than they ever have run all year? Coach Stinson."

The defense said the boy's death was not Stinson's fault, saying instead that the amphetamine Adderall, the medication that Gilpin was taking to battle attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, caused him to overheat. The boy's body temperature was 107 degrees when he collapsed.

VIDEO: Coach Faces Homicide Trial In Athletes Heat Death Play

"Amphetimines affect the body's ability to do the thermal regulation," defense attorney Brian Butler said in court Tuesday. "This has been nothing but a witch hunt by these people."

"This man is innocent!" Butler yelled.

Stinson's trial is believed to be the first in which a coach has faced criminal charges for working his players too hard, and other coaches say it could have a chilling effect on their profession.

If convicted, Stinson faces up to 10 years behind bars.

Stinson: 'I Lost One of My Boys'

"I lost one of my boys, a boy that I loved and a boy that I cared for," Stinson said during a January vigil outside his home organized by his supporters.

Stinson may be the first high school coach ever charged with homicide for allegedly working a player to death, but athletes collapsing and dying during the tough summer football workouts are virtually an annual occurrence.

An average of four to five athletes have died of heat-related problem every summer for the last 10 years, according to Michael Bergeron, the director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance and Center for Youth Sports & Health, and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine.

But he said the problem goes far beyond the four or five who die each year, because countless other young athletes have serious heat-related injuries or problems. But because these other episodes are not fatal, they get little attention.

The most recent case may be Brent Shinn McGhee, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who died Aug. 25, the day after his first practice for the Vernon Middle School football team held in temperatures of more than 100 degrees.

"Putting kids through this to win a football game, it makes no sense," Brent's father Brock McGhee told The Associated Press. He said he believes the heat was at least partly the cause of his son's death, but said he did not blame the coaches.

Prosecutors say Stinson had been unusually brutal during the practice before Gilpin collapsed, denying Gilpin water and using peer pressure to push his players. He often forced players to keep running until one of them quit, they say.

"A reasonable person should have seen that [a death] could have happened," Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney Dave Stengel said.

Cause of Football Player's Death Disputed

A Jefferson County Public Schools report on Gilpin's death, issued July 1, said Stinson threatened to make his players run wind sprints until somebody quit the team, but concluded that he did not break district rules.

Despite that finding, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman said, "Such motivational tools are not acceptable."

Stinson's methods may have been harsh, but at least according to the coroner who performed the first autopsy on Gilpin, they were not criminal. The initial report ruled the teen's death an accident.

Dr. William Smock, the head of emergency medicine at the University of Louisville hospital, who has been a frequent prosecution expert witness for the past 25 years, also told prosecutors in March that he believed Gilpin's death was an accident.

Guilty or not, schools and coaches nationwide are paying close attention to this case. Nearly a dozen coaches' organizations have donated money for Stinson's defense, fearing what a guilty verdict might do to high school sports programs across the country.

"In the days to come, we're going to have a difficult time finding people to coach if situations like this arise," said Mike O'Donnell, a high school football coach in White Plains, N.Y.

The defense maintains that Gilpin's death was a result of his taking Adderall, which he used to treat attention deficit disorder, saying he did not die of dehydration.

The prosecution has suffered two blows since jury selection began Monday: First, Jefferson Circuit Judge Susan Schultz Gibson barred prosecutors from using 1,000 pages of evidence that she ruled was handed over to the defense too late; and second, she denied a defense request to delay the start of the trial.

Even before those rulings, legal experts were split about whether prosecutors would be able to make their case, and some said they have a tough hill to climb.

"The prosecution must prove that the coach failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a death would occur," said Louisville defense attorney Steve Romines, who is not connected to the case. "All over the country that day, football players were being conditioned."

Heat Deaths in Youth Football Preventable, Experts Say

With his team, O'Donnell says he takes all the proper precautions during games and practices. Players are given water whenever it's requested, and he carefully times practices to prevent overwork.His staff is also trained in CPR and defibrillation.

But in a tough sport like football, O'Donnell says nothing can guarantee a player's safety.

"It could happen to anyone," said said. "A kid can go down right now as I'm standing here, and you really have no control over it."

According to both the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Athletic Trainers' Association, the risk of heat deaths can be minimized by proper training techniques.

In 2005, the ACSM released a set of specific guidelines for how coaches should handle practices to reduce the risk of heat-related death and injury.

Included among the recommendations were that there should be no two-a-days during the first five days of practice; the use of helmets, shoulder pads and other protective gear should be gradually introduced over the first five days; and practices should be limited to no more than three hours during the first five days.

"What I tell coaches is that everything we recommend for safety is going to help performance," said Bergeron, one of the authors of the guidelines.

"All of these deaths happen on the first one or two days of practice, so it's clearly a case of doing too much too soon," he said. "The thing needs to be progressive. Everything needs to be introduced progressively, and if this is done, the athletes will respond positively."

In June, the NATA released its own set of guidelines, essentially echoing the ACSM report.

Football may get the most attention when it comes to heat-related deaths and injuries, but according to a study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, athletes in other sports and even marching band members are also at risk.

The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research says that "heat-related deaths continue to be the cause of a majority of indirect deaths" in high school sports, including cross-country running and wrestling.