High School Football Coach On Trial For Homicide

Former Pleasure Ridge Park High School football coach Jason Stinson faces a homicide charge for the death of one of his players. Fifteen-year-old Max Gilpin collapsed at the end of practice last year, on a day when the heat index in Louisville, Kentucky, was 94 degrees. Prosecutors say Stinson worked his players too hard. Gabe Bullard reports for member station WFPL.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The new football season is here. College teams will be playing their first games this coming weekend, and the NFL season begins the weekend after that.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some high schools have already kicked off the season, and in a moment we'll hear about a game in a small Iowa community that attracted national attention.

SHAPIRO: But first, we go to Louisville, Kentucky, where a former high school football coach goes on trial today for the death of one of his players. Jason Stinson is charged with reckless homicide and endangerment. A 15-year-old on his team collapsed during practice last year and died of heat exhaustion. Stinson is believed to be the first coach to face a criminal trial for a player's death. From member station WFPL, Gabe Bullard reports.

GABE BULLARD: Things are different this football season in Louisville.

(Soundbite of crashing, rustling)

Unidentified Man: That's it, that's better. That's better, Jordan.

(Soundbite of whistle)

BULLARD: On this hot August day at Seneca High School, players practice with helmets and pads as they learn how to break through a defensive line. And no one says anything when quarterback Jordan Bender takes an unscheduled break, sits on the sideline, and guzzles a drink.

Mr. JORDAN BENDER (Quarterback, Seneca High School): This is the best water right here. Cold water…

BULLARD: Head Coach Louis Dover says there was a time when players would have been punished for stopping practice for a water break.

Mr. LOUIS DOVER (Head Football Coach, Seneca High School): When I played, yeah, that was commonplace. Since I've been coaching, that happens less and less. I think people are more, you know, more aware.

BULLARD: Thirty-nine football players have died from heat stroke since 1995. As a result of Max Gilpin's death last year, players in Kentucky can now get a drink whenever they want. Coaches have to pass a heat safety course, and Louisville schools have cut down on demeaning tough talk.

State prosecutors say the day Gilpin collapsed at Pleasure Ridge Park High School, coach Jason Stinson had lost his temper and deprived his players of water. The school district denies the claim about water, but prosecutors say the coach's actions were criminal. Dover says he's worried about the scrutiny and restrictions the case might lead to.

Mr. DOVER: If there's a guilty verdict, I mean, it's a very dark day for high school sports and coaching because I think the biggest effect is, it's going to run people away from coaching.

BULLARD: Grant Teaff directs the American Football Coaches Association. He doesn't think the case will scare coaches away from the sport.

Mr. GRANT TEAFF (Director, American Football Coaches Association): There's just constant effort by many different groups to make sure that the safety and the well-being of the student athletes are first and foremost, by coaches, trainers, doctors, administrators.

BULLARD: Past football deaths and player injuries have led to changes in game rules, and practice frequency and length. Regardless of the outcome in Stinson's trial, Teaff expects even more improvements to make high school football safer.

For NPR News, I'm Gabe Bullard in Louisville, Kentucky.

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