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Kentucky trial of high school coach has wide implications

That is the core question underlying Commonwealth of Kentucky v. David Jason Stinson, the first case in which a high school coach has been criminally charged with a player's death. 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 began 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.

Stinson refutes those allegations through a report compiled by the Jefferson County (Ky.) Public School system, offering a radically different account of his practice regimen. For its part, the school system -- which could eventually be named a co-defendant in a wrongful death civil action already brought against Stinson and other coaches -- asserts that Stinson broke no rules in his style of practice. It also claims that Gilpin, whose parents signed forms indicating that he was sick before the practice, was hydrated when he collapsed and likely died as a result of an unrelated condition. Some medical experts have also speculated that Gilpin's use of the FDA-approved prescription drug Adderall for Attention Deficit Disorder may have contributed to his death.

Adding to the mystery is Gilpin's death certificate. While no autopsy of Gilpin was conducted, his death certificate indicates that he died of septic shock, multiple organ failure, and complications from heat stroke, a combination which paints an unclear picture as to what role Stinson's practice regimen may have played.

The lack of clarity surrounding Gilpin's cause of death poses legal significance. In order to prove that Stinson committed reckless homicide, which under Kentucky law is defined as the reckless causing of another person's death, prosecutors must convince a jury that Stinson (1) failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature and degree that his failure constituted gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care; and (2) his failure resulted in Gilpin's death. If the jury has any reasonable doubt that Gilpin may have died from unrelated conditions or that Stinson may not have failed to perceive the required risk, then Stinson will be found not guilty. Any uncertainty concerning Gilpin's cause of death will thus benefit Stinson.

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Stinson also faces a charge for first degree wanton endangerment, which under Kentucky law requires prosecutors to show that Stinson manifested extreme indifference to the value of Gilpin's life. Stinson will likely argue that his practice conditions were normal and thus did not create an extraordinary risk of danger or serious physical injury. If Stinson's practice techniques were indeed similar to those typically employed by other coaches, those coaches' practice techniques are also to some extent on trial.

Along those lines, if 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.

While a conviction or guilty plea in Stinson's case would undoubtedly prove meaningful, there are potential limitations to the fallout. Most notably, the case is limited to Kentucky law and the choice of prosecution by one Commonwealth Attorney's Office; other states' prosecutors have not pursued such a prosecution under their laws and there is no indication that they would do so.

Regardless of its outcome, Commonwealth v. Stinson may encourage coaches across the country to rethink their practice conditions and how they treat players. While some of those coaches would likely deride a softening of football practices, others might embrace a perceived increase in player safety.