LYNN NEARY, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Last summer on a hot August day in Louisville, Kentucky Max Gilpin, a 15 year-old student, passed out during football practice. His body temperature was 107 degrees. Gilpin never regained consciousness. Three days later, he died. Since then, witnesses told the local newspaper that they heard the coaching staff deny water to Gilpin and his teammates and that the coaches told the team they'd have to run till someone quit. Gilpin's parents filed a civil suit against the coaches and the attorney in Jefferson Commonwealth filed criminal charges against the head coach. Yesterday, he pleaded not guilty to a charge of reckless homicide.
If you play or coach high school football or if your child plays football, should a coach face criminal charges in the death of a player? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join our conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. And joining us now from the studios of WFPL, our member station in Louisville, Kentucky is Antoinette Konz, a reporter for the Courier-Journal. Good to have you with us, Antoinette.
Ms. ANTOINETTE KONZ (Reporter, Courier-Journal): Good to be here.
NEARY: I know you've been following the story from day one. Is it really clear what happened that day at football practice at Pleasure Ridge Park High School?
Ms. KONZ: Well, the only thing that we've got in a clear glimpse of is what the witnesses have told us. Very little information from the investigative file has been released. And we don't expect it to be released until, you know, this criminal case proceeds with discovery and what not. We - you know, all we have is what the witnesses have told us.
NEARY: And that was?
Ms. KONZ: And that was - that was that, you know, on August 20th, the day that he collapsed, that several player - several witnesses told us the coaches denied players water when they asked for it, and that they were going to run the team until somebody quit that day. And we do have witnesses that have told us that there was in fact a boy that quit that day, and it was that after - after this boy quit is when the gassers(ph), is what they are called, is when they stopped.
NEARY: And - and...
Ms. KONZ: And by then, two players had collapsed by then...
NEARY: Well, I was about to ask you about that. There was another player who also collapsed. What happened to him?
Ms. KONZ: He was hospitalized for two days. I'm not entirely sure, you know, obviously, his medical history was never released to us or, you know, I'm not sure if he's part of the investigation, but he was - we were told it was a breathing issue with him and he was hospitalized for two days and was released on August 22nd, and then of course, Max died on August 23rd.
NEARY: Does anyone know or has there been any indication yet whether any kind of supplements or some kind of medications that these young men were taking that they might have affected what happened?
Ms. KONZ: Well, there was - in discovery, there has been a civil lawsuit filed by Max's parents. And as part of that discovery, there was a thing from the mother - Max's mother saying that he had been taking Creatine which is a supplement, muscle enhancer, dietary supplement, I believe. And he was taking that prior to the practice. But he did not - she said in her deposition that he stopped taking it July of - before - you know, July before the practice started. He was also on prescription medication, Adderall for attention deficit disorder. And the district was aware according to his physical that he was taking the Adderall.
NEARY: How did the school and the school district react to the death? What did they do?
Ms. KONZ: Well, initially - initially they came out on Monday following - he died on a Saturday and on Monday, they had done their preliminary investigation, I guess, is what they would call it. And they said that according to their policies and procedures, everything had, you know, as far as they knew, everything had been followed to a T and everything was fine. Well, we ran that story in Tuesday's paper and that's when all the witnesses started to call me and started to call into the newspaper - people who had been either at the practice that day or had been attending a nearby soccer game that was on an adjacent field, right next to the football practice. And they are the ones that said - we had about six or seven people that called in, people that, you know, just said what they had heard and that the players were being run pretty rough and that the coaches were mad at the players and for whatever reasons, and they just felt kind of odd about that whole practice. And then when they heard what happened to Max, they felt compelled to talk to somebody about what had happened.
NEARY: Yeah, I wondered what the witnesses said about what their own reactions were that day to what was going on. Did they feel that the practice should have been stopped? Did they have some sense that - what did they say about that?
Ms. KONZ: Well, they - a lot of them were - they were very concerned. They said that, you know, it actually - you know, these people that were actually watching the soccer game, they told us that, you know, it actually caused their attention to shift from the soccer game to the football practice. So, you know, to have - to be in the middle of a game and then all of a sudden you hear something that kind of diverts your attention, that's what several of these witnesses told us. And so, then, they kind of drew their attention over there. And then they saw that Max had been laying on the field. And there's also an issue over the 911 call that has been raised by the attorneys. 911 was not called until 6:18 P.M. that night and the attorneys for the - in the civil law suit have said, according to witness statements and people from what they have - come forward, it could be anywhere from between 18 and 25 minutes from the time that Max fell to the time 911 was called.
NEARY: Now, you mentioned the civil law suit a couple of times. Is that what ultimately led to the decisions to make this a criminal case? How did it become a criminal case?
Ms. KONZ: It became a criminal case after the Commonwealth attorney, Dave Stengel here in Jefferson County, read the accounts from the witnesses in our newspaper. He read these accounts on Wednesday, actually which is also the day that Max was buried. I was covering the funeral that day. And I remember getting a call and being told that the Commonwealth attorney was going to ask Louisville Metro Police Department to start investigating this to see if there was some sort of foul play involved with his death.
NEARY: And is this without precedent?
Ms. KONZ: From what we have been told, yes. We've been told from sports experts who've taught, you know, national level, college level, high school level. We have not been able to find any kind of case where this has been - where a high school coach or any kind of coach for that matter has been charged in a criminal case. Now, there's been civil cases, but I have not heard of any in terms of, you know, criminal charges being brought against a coach like this. And the charges were not brought initially. This is all a result of an indictment of the Grand Jury which was last Thursday.
NEARY: Well, let's take a call now. We're going to go to Tom, and he's calling from Chillicothe, Ohio. Hi, Tom.
TOM (Caller): Hi, there. The first thing I'd like to say is to Max, God rest his soul, and to his family, God bless them. I hope they can move past this. I am a high school football coach and I called initially because I wanted to see if Max had been taking any supplements. One of the things that we try to encourage our players to understand is that, you know, a healthy diet and a moderation of exercise will do more than any supplement can. I'm sure the folks out there that sell those things are going to disagree with me but, you know, everyone has their own opinion.
With that being said, if this is a wake up call to the coaches who deny their players' water as a punishment, if they feel they're going to get more motivation out of the kids because they're going to hold that from them, that's just a bygone era. We try and make water available to our kids. In fact, we build it into the practice schedule, five minute intervals and between each station or in between each individual drill, water is in there. We also have water bottles there during practice so that if a kid is not taking wraps, if we're running the second team or the third team, the first and the second can be getting water. I just - I hope this doesn't open the door because even though we've taken these steps and these precautions at our practice, we, too, have seen kids succumb to heat exhaustion. We actually had one instance of heat stroke where we had to rush the young man into the shower, strip him down to his shorts, immediately get as much water on him as we possibly can while running the cold shower on him to lower his core temperature.
NEARY: And did that - did that revive him? Did that…
TOM: Thankfully, thankfully, this young man, you know, was fine the next day. We held him out of practice because we wanted to make sure. But if there are any high school students that are listening, if there are any high school coaches that are listening who have not yet received the message and have not internalized it, water during practice is maybe 15 percent of the intake that they need. The kids need to know that after practice, before practice that night, even when they're not thirsty, they've got to prepare their bodies for the rigors of the next day by getting as much water in them as possible.
NEARY: Tom, let me ask you something, and I wanted to ask somebody close to this and that is, how did this become - I gather that this has been part of, I guess, what you might call football culture to withhold water either as punishment or motivation or - that's been there for a while. But you said it's now a thing of the past now but...
TOM: I certainly hope it's a thing of the past. I've been coaching for nine years so I can only comment on my experience as a coach and then that of when I was a player. I'm thankful I went to a school that's, you know, the coaches made sure that, you know, that was never a punishment. You know, making practice start a half hour earlier in the day if kids are late, that's an appropriate punishment. Making it so if someone cuts in line during lunch time, they go to the end of the line, that's an appropriate punishment. Conditioning is an integral part of the training to prepare these young men for the game field. But to the point where we deny the body the basic things that it needs, if you want to motivate the brain, motivate the brain don't deny the body water.
TOM: Even, you know, first year med school student - heck, I know and I'm just an old football coach. I know that if you deny the body water, then the brain is going to cease to function the way that it's supposed to.
NEARY: All right. Thanks.
TOM: So, that's just all I have to comment. Again, God bless Max and his family. I hope they can see their way through this, but please let the parents know they're listening before we indict the coaches, take the bull by the horns and make sure that their kids are drinking the water the night before.
NEARY: All right. Thanks very much for calling, Tom.
TOM: Thank you.
NEARY: Antoinette, I'm just curious. Before we go to a break in about a minute, how is the community reacting to this?
Ms. KONZ: There's shock and sadness. There is a big split. I would say, I don't think that that would be overestimating. There's been a lot of just - people just completely - just shocked by this. I mean, obviously, first of all, you have a football player that dies and then, you know, several months later, you get an indictment for a homicide charge. It's been - it's been pretty shocking. There's been several vigils being held in coach Stinson's honor here in Louisville. The first one was held Saturday. There was about 100 people that was in the front yard of his house and another one was on Sunday night, the night before the arraignment and it was at the football field at PRP, and there was probably about 200 to 300 people that attended that one. There's also, you know, people that kind of feel compelled to be - you know, it's almost like they're feeling that they have to pick sides.
NEARY: Yes. Antoinette, thanks so much. Hold on, we're going to talk with you a little bit more about this after the break. Antoinette Konz is an education reporter with the Louisville Courier-Journal.
I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're talking about the felony charges filed against a high school football coach in Louisville, Kentucky. One of his players, a 15-year-old sophomore collapsed in the heat last summer and later died. Today, we want to hear from coaches, players, parents. Should a high school coach face criminal charges? Call us at 800-989-8255. Send us an email to email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org and then you click on Talk of the Nation. Our guests are Toni Konz. She's an education reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal in Louisville. And joining us now is Buzz Bissinger, the author of "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream." That nonfiction book about high school football in Texas was turned into a movie and later a television series. He joins us from WHYY, our member station in Philadelphia. Good to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Mr. BUZZ BISSINGER (Author, "Friday Night Lights"): Thank you.
NEARY: Now, how common is this? I mean, do you hear stories about this - of players, you know, sort of being - sort of deprived of water in the summer heat and...
Mr. BISSINGER: You hear - you do hear stories of players who have passed out during practice. I have not heard of a story like this and I know there's a lot of speculation at this point, but witnesses have come forth. They've spoken to the Courier-Journal and it seems clear on the surface at least, this is sort of part of the bad old machoism of football and you should never ever deny water to your players, and on the surface, this is an incredibly disturbing story. Water is being denied, the 911 call may have taken as long as 25 minutes after the player collapsed. Under these conditions, it sounds like the coach was pissed off. He was pissed off at his players and under these conditions, I think the indictment is appropriate. This harkens back to the days of 1930s and 1940s when Bear Bryant, when he was the coach of Texas A&M, took 50 players down to Junction, Texas and only 17 survived. And at that point in time, you were never given water. You know, it was all part of the machoism of the sport but it is now a given. And to me, it all goes to the absolute access and out of control nature of sports and high school sports in this country.
NEARY: You know, I have often wondered even before this, you know, sometimes on a hot summer day, at the end of the summer, your driving past the high school, you see these kids out there in the terrible heat. And I've always wondered why, why do they have to do that at this point on a day like this? Why do they have to be practicing on a day like that?
Mr. BISSINGER: Well, you know, they're practicing to toughen up. I mean, some of them play in climates that are always going to have a certain amount of temperature. When I wrote the book, "Friday Night Lights" about Permian High School, I mean, on a Friday night, it might be 75 or 80 degrees temperature. So they are trying to toughen up, but even at Permian which had enormous accesses, I mean, they have players who were given injections of pain killers during half time, had players who had broken bones, purposely never x-rayed because if they were x-rayed by a doctor and there was a broken chip or broken bone, they won't be allowed to play. But even Permian would not deny water to its players. I mean, you do have to be tough, you do have to be conditioned but this is the worse case scenario of what can happen and I know there's a lot of speculation and a lot will come out of trial. But it's very, very disturbing.
NEARY: You know, I know you're saying this is a sort of harkening back to football's past, but I have to say, just today, I read a column as I was reading into this story in preparation for the show, of a guy that said, this is a tragedy, but then went on to say, it was not a crime and part of his argument was that this kind of tough football coaching weeds those players out who were just aren't strong enough. And indeed, even said, maybe this kid just wasn't strong enough and his parents have to face that. So, that kind of macho attitude seems to me is still prevalent.
Mr. BISSINGER: Well, there's always going to be a certain amount of machoism in football. It's a very violent, you know, brutal game. There are 14 kids in the State of Texas alone in the past six years who have suffered catastrophic spinal cord injuries. There was an incident in Texas in 2005 where a disgruntled parent shot a coach in the stomach. It's a macho game. It's a tough game, but that column is ridiculous. If the price of machoism, if the price of toughening up kids and weeding out the strong from the weak is a kid dying, then it's a ridiculous and pathetic statement on the part of the person who wrote that column.
NEARY: All right.
Mr. BISSINGER: I mean, this is not the way football should be under any circumstances. There are other ways to figure out who's tough and who's strong and who's weak and who can play for four quarters.
NEARY: All right. Let's take a caller now. We're going to go to Tim and Tim is calling from Chicago. Hi, Tim.
TIM (Caller): Good afternoon.
NEARY: Go ahead.
TIM: You know, I played for five years, played a year in college and I've had two sons playing in our high school football and wrestling and - well, wrestling has probably a worse history than football. However, I look at this case and I really think it's a case of a prosecutor abuse and, you know, not dissimilar to the Duke Lacrosse, a guy goes for headlines on a case that he knows will get his name out there. Primarily, the tragedy of it is that using the law to change behavior where, you know, there's no anticipation that this is a criminal issue. Civil cases are what should be guiding this kind of societal behavior, not a criminal case. It's like criminalizing a malpractice event in the medical field. You know, it's a mistake of judgment, of course, for this coach to hold back water. I mean, I saw pieces of that. I'm 53. I saw pieces of that one. I was a young athlete, coaches doing that a bit, but even 30 years ago, 35 years ago, this was, you know, that was beginning to pass away. But that machismo issue is going to be there but, boy, this is just the prosecutor's random luck and this should be a civil case. It's just that - that creates these new standards of care for coaches and for school systems to teaching coach to train their coaching staff to execute practice properly and hold them accountable in a civil way...
NEARY: Right. And so you think it was a certainly legitimate for the parents to have brought a civil action.
TIM: Absolutely, and you know, the - what a tragedy but this is not a criminal - criminal law should not be used for this. There are other things that should be used for, but, you know, this is not what the legislator decided. If someone wants to pass criminal law, let's make a criminal law, let's the legislature create it, but let's not have a jury and a judge, you know, extend the boundary of criminal law into the coaching arena.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Tim.
TIM: Thank you.
NEARY: I don't know, Buzz, if you want to react to that because you seem to feel that it was legitimate to bring criminal charges.
Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I think it was legitimate and as I say, there's a lot that I don't know and I understand. Let me ask Antoinette something. How many witnesses came forward?
Ms. KONZ: Well, to our newspaper, I received probably nine or 10 people that came forward. Now, of course, not all of those were willing to give their names but we actually quoted, I believe it was four or five in our initial article. Another thing I would like everybody to be aware of this is that, the Commonwealth attorney here, he was very clear when this case went to the grand jury, that he did not to seek any recommendations for any kind of charges. He simply took the case that he had to the grand jury and they came back with this charge of reckless homicide. I was in the courtroom when they read the indictment so, it was more of a - you know, the police department here took a long time. You know, they had a very large number of, you know, players to interview, witnesses to interview and I was told that, you know, it's one of the largest scale investigations that this police department here has ever undertaken. And you know, they presented it to Dingel's office probably in November and it took, as you can see, about two months before he was able to present it to a grand jury.
NEARY: All right. Let's go to another caller now. We're going to go to Jason, he's calling from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Jason.
JASON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I played football from the time I was 13 until throughout the year that I was 18 and I've spent pretty much all of the year since trying to heal my body from all the damage I did to my body during those years. And I think American society needs to take a much more critical look at the entire institution of football itself. I also coached for a couple of years. I look back at all those years and it's really my biggest regret in life, I think it was the stupidest thing I could have done to my body was spend those years playing football, and I still have my helmet from my senior year in high school. It was one of only two helmets that was rejected by the company that refurbishes helmets because it was so damaged. And my coaches used to praise me with how damaged it was. They would be so impressed with the deep scars on it. And, you know, they patted me on the back and gave me my helmet back and were so impressed that it was rejected from the refurbish company. You know, it was a symbol of how hard I could hit and how - you know, you can look on the inside of that helmet and there's four or five warning stickers that say, do not use this helmet as something to hit with, and yet coach will teach you how to hit with it.
I mean, you cannot play the game of football without violence and without using your helmet. I mean, if you're taught to block an opponent, you're taught to block as low as you can and the opponent is coming in as low as he can and you meet helmet-to-helmet every day in practice, you meet helmet-to-helmet in games and, you know, I suffered nothing severe. During those years, I never had any type of extreme trauma but all of that scar tissue over the years caught up to me and I had to undergo just extensive spinal work. You know, absolute tragedy of what happened to that child. I don't personally think that the coach from - I don't know anything about the case, but you know, a coach withholding water is a minor problem. There are so many victims in this game, nobody acknowledges them. I mean, pro...
NEARY: I want to get, Jason, I'd like to get Buzz to react to some of the things that you've been saying and I really appreciate your calling in, thanks so much.
JASON: OK, thanks.
NEARY: Buzz, you know, I don't expect - what I'm wondering about this case, in particular is, I don't expect football to change, that it's not going to be as violent as it is but, do you think ultimately that a case like this where criminal charges are being brought against a coach in the death of a high school student. Will it bring some changes do you think in the way high school football is conducted in the future?
Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I think it will bring some changes because I think other coaches are going to see the seriousness of what can happen, and at the very least. Look, football is a violent game. You're not going to get rid of the hitting. You're not going to get rid of the sense of that you want to kill your opponent on the football field. You're not going to get rid of helmet crashing into helmet. But giving water is a basic medical given. It has been proven over and over that you must give these kids water, and at the very least I think coaches are going to look in Louisville and say, my God, this guy has been charged with a criminal crime. He's been charged with negligence and I'll tell you what, I may yell at them. I may scream at them. I may dislike them, but I am going to give them water. And I want to make one thing clear what one caller said, this is not like the Duke Lacross case at all. I covered the Duke Lacross case for Vanity Fair which was a reckless prosecutor to depending on one totally unreliable witness. From what Antoinette says there were nine witnesses who came forward. They came forward of their own accord. That's' a lot of witnesses. They obviously saw something that disturbed them very, very deeply. So it's not comparable to the Duke case at all.
NEARY: Buzz Bissinger is the author of "Friday Night Lights" and my other guest is Toni Konz. She's an education reporter with The Louisville Courier-Journal. And we are discussing the case in Louisville where a high school coach is facing criminal charges in the death of a player. And if you'd like to join that discussion you can give us a call at 800-989-8255. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we're going to go now to Andrea who is calling from Indiana, I believe. Hi, Andrea.
ANDREA (Caller): Hi, I have to say, I take great issue with the guy earlier, who said that was a frivolous prosecution. I think you absolutely - you're entrusting your child to these coaches, and they are authority figure and an absolute authority figure where football is concerned. The kids don't bust 'em(ph) or they don't get on the field. And my son, I watched on the sidelines and not very often during practice because I could not stand it. They would run them until they would throw up repeatedly, and I just don't understand. I mean, this is - I understand this is a sport. I understand that you want you to win. But this is - these are kids and to run them like that just for the sake of conditioning them.
NEARY: You know, can I ask you something as a parent? Did you ever confront a coach about this or ask for the rational behind it, or was that just something that your son would have said?
ANDREA: My son, I actually didn't say one or the other I want you to quit. But I did say, I'd really would like to talk to the coach. And my husband happens to work in affiliation with the school and I said, you're going to have to say something. I can't stand that, to see them run them like that and my son would have just - he'd never would have gone on the field again. He said, if you say anything, I'll never get to play again. So I kept my mouth shut and happily I think this year, he's decided he's not going to play. And I feel bad because we enjoyed going to the games but, you know, when you see something like this, this is a parent's nightmare to see that these poor people have lost their son over something so ridiculous. How could you not give a child water when you're the person that's watching them. Parents count on these people to take care of their children while they're there.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much Andrea. Appreciate your calling in. We want to try and get one more caller in before the end of the show, Steve from Tallahassee, Florida. Hi, Steve(ph), go ahead.
STEVE (Caller):Hi, Steve, Tallahassee and everyone is making a point, and I could tell you some things that happened to me but one point I do remember and both in Marine Corps and in college football and high school football. You know, when they say water, and all the sudden you've got a bunch of players who are lagging behind and all of a sudden your water break, which should take all of two minutes for every player if you've got enough water available, enough spigots or water bottles, all of a sudden it's a 15-minute water break or 20-minute water break, all right, get back to practice and they're like, you know, then all of a sudden you've got a coach and I've seen it and I'm sure a lot of coaches around the country are saying, yeah. Now you got an upset coach. I'm giving you water and you're taking half an hour to drink it.
NEARY: All right. Can't you enforce some discipline on the water break? I mean, isn't that a better solution than denying them water at all?
STEVE: Well, what if they're not listening to the discipline and they decide to not drink as fast as they should. Now you're drawing practice against so-and-so, who didn't drink enough water. Now we got Pandora's Box. So, you know.
NEARY: Yeah well, I - maybe I can get Buzz, we don't have much time left. Buzz but thanks for the call Steven. I wonder Buzz if you can react to that. You know more about what goes on a football field than I do.
Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I may not think generally players listen to their coach. I have to think there is a way of making the water break occur in a reasonable length of time. And also as Toni describes it, you know, they were going to run until they drop. So that just adds another layer to the tragedy that seems to exist here. They're being denied water. You guys are going to run until one of you collapses. Two kids actually collapsed. I mean, what on earth was the school or the coach. What were they going to say to the parents? How did my son die? Well, he collapsed. Why did he collapse? Well, because I denied them water. Well, why did you deny them water? Because I was angry and I was upset and they weren't practicing hard enough. What else did you say? Well, I said, that you're going to run until one of you collapsed. I mean, it's a nightmare and a fiasco, and it is a tragedy and a lot will come out at trial that I don't know about but on the surface he was criminally negligent. It is a huge responsibility, that is being a coach.
NEARY: Thanks Buzz. Thanks so much for being with us. Buzz Bissinger is the author of "Friday Night Lights" and most recently of "Three Nights in August" and he joined us from our member station Philadelphia WHYY. We are also joined by Antoinette Konz, a reporter for the Courier-Journal. Thanks so much for being with us, Andrea. When we come back; Neal Gaiman. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.