Whitesburg KY

State works to educate coaches, players


Joni Jenkins doesn’t consider herself a football fan. What she knows about the game is what her father and brother — both former players — told her.

Yet sitting in church one day last year, watching a girl struggle with the death of a high school classmate who collapsed on the football field and later succumbed to heat stroke, the Kentucky state representative decided it was time to learn more about the sport.

The death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin last August, three days after he collapsed at a Pleasure Ridge Park football workout, was the second time in three years a Kentucky high school player had died after practicing in wilting heat.

To Jenkins, who represents the working-class PRP neighborhood, two deaths were two too many.

“We couldn’t let another one go by without trying to change something,” she said.

While attorneys argue whether former PRP coach David Jason Stinson is criminally responsible for Gilpin’s death — Stinson’s trial on reckless homicide and wanton endangerment charges is under way in Jefferson Circuit Court — the ripple effects of the tragedy are being felt on the practice fields and in coaching huddles across Kentucky and around the country.

Jenkins introduced legislation calling for state education officials to review medical science and treatment guidelines in shaping policies for schools in responding to heat-related illnesses among athletes.

The bill, which passed, led the Kentucky Medical Association and the state high school athletic association to put together a fourhour online course that features segments on emergency planning and recognition; temperature-related illnesses; head, neck and facial injuries; and first aid.

“There’s nothing more important than the health and safety of our student-athletes,” said Kentucky High School Athletic Association assistant commissioner Julian Tackett. “Nobody wants what happened to happen again. Anything we can do to help raise awareness, we’re going to do it.”

About 6,700 of the estimated 12,000 coaches in the state have completed all seven modules, with an additional 300 at least starting the process.

The legislation enacted in Kentucky came about the time the National Athletic Trainers’ Association issued a report recommending more stringent heat-related guidelines at the high school level.

Among the recommendations were the elimination of two-a-day practices during the first week of August drills and more down time for players to recuperate.

While the report was not a direct response to Gilpin’s death, David Csillan, the report’s co-author and an athletic trainer at Ewing (N.J.) High, said the attention surrounding the case has raised awareness about the importance of proper heat acclimatization and put some of football’s long-standing tenets into question.

“The days of going through back-to-back days of double sessions and proving that you’re a man, I think those days are gone,” he said.

Kentucky’s standards — already among the most progressive in the country according to Tackett — could become a model for other states to follow. Tackett said he’s been contacted by a dozen states about the online program.

Csillan called the positive response to the NATA’s report, which mirrors policies already in place at the Division I college level, “prolific.”

“I think people are finally aware that somebody out there is trying to protect our secondary school athletes,” he said.

The changes in Louisville, however, aren’t limited to what players do on the field.

Jefferson County Public Schools now requires all athletes and at least one parent to watch a 40-minute video that touches on everything from dietary supplements to bacterial infections. Local high school coaches also must attend a seminar on using positive reinforcement when dealing with students.

Stinson told investigators he and his staff yelled at players during the practice, something that wasn’t uncommon according to his players.

“It’s pure hard-nosed football,” then-senior running back Marquess Martin told investigators. “So he expects you to come here and work hard every day. It’s a tough football team. And just sports in general.”

Maybe, but the times could be changing.

JCPS superintendent Sheldon Berman said he was “extremely troubled” by what Stinson told his players and called the motivational tactics by the coach “not acceptable.”

Jimmie Reed, the executive director of the Kentucky Football Coaches Association, said the ordeal already has coaches re-evaluating the way they communicate with players.

“Their lingo and language at practices have been deterred somewhat,” he said.

Even so, Reed isn’t certain better education or different motivation tactics could have prevented Gilpin’s death. He pointed to the death of a Fort Campbell High School player in July as proof that some things are out of the coach’s hands. Timothy Williams died July 29 after becoming disoriented at practice. Temperatures were in the 70s at the time.

Gilpin’s death “was an accident, an act of God that’s completely out of our hands,” Reed said. “I don’t see where … coach Stinson did anything that could have been prevented.”

Perhaps, but even Reed allows more education isn’t a bad thing.

“There will be some good come out of it,” Reed said. “Football in our state will be better off for it down the road.”

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