Sports Are Not as Safe in the US

Posted August 11, 2014

It’s the beginning of August.  Temperatures are at their highest. And every year, at this time, I get apprehensive.  I know that a child is going to die somewhere , this month, from heat illness. It happened in while I was coaching at Auburn University. Gregg Pratt was running practices sprints on a hot August afternoon in 1983, when he collapsed and later died after attempts to revive him were unsuccessful . It happens (more than once) every August on a practice field in the United States, typically due to the combination of the arrival of heat waves and the start of season practices.

This year Rogerio Naiva Pinheiro, a judge in Brazil’s labor court, ordered soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to allow water breaks if the composite temperature exceeded 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Failure to comply would result in a fine of $90,000. With this mandate and corresponding consequence, referee’s complied. In the 39th minute of the draw between the United States and Portugal, for instance, the referee stopped the game for a water break.
But where are the policy “judges” in the USA that will establish safety guidelines as they did with the World Cup in Brazil?

Coaching is an unregulated social service in the US. Most coaches at the youth and community levels receive no training in first-aid and injury prevention methods, including guidelines for practices and games in high temperatures or how to respond in the critical 10 minutes after a heat stroke.

August 20, 2008 in Louisville, Kentucky, a 15-year-old offensive lineman at Pleasure Ridge high school died from heat stroke while running sprints at the end of a preseason practice. Max Gilpin had a temperature of 107 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. The heat index that day reached 94 degrees. The coach was charged with “reckless homicide” and indicted by a grand jury. Found not guilty at trial, Coach David Jason Stinson was guilty only of inexperience and lack of knowledge in injury prevention.  He’s not alone. It is estimated that as high as 90% of youth coaches have no educational background in the exercise sciences, prevention techniques, and best practices related to sports safety. With research findings that say that the majority of parents believe it is the coach that will safeguard their child from serious injury, a disconcerting disconnect exists between perception and reality. As I testified in Max’s case, without state mandates and standards for coaching education, the coach could not be held personally responsible.  

What can parents do to change the standards?

  • Get Trained. Ensure your school’s coaches, staff, and athletes are being trained in proper safe procedures for heat illness and other sports related injuries. CoachSafely offers free tips, facts, education and resources on each of these major injuries.  Coming in the Fall of 2014, we will offer parent certification as well as coach certification through a partnership with Jacksonville State University.   
  • Set Policies.
    • Encourage your school to adopt certain policies and best practices. Each sport has their own set of prevention guidelines which can be found on our injury pages. Develop action plans in the event of an emergency. Most traumatic injuries are survivable if proper steps are taken within minutes of the event. 
    • Visit out Policy Resources page to learn how to get involved with your local government to enact laws to protect your child.  
  • Be an Expert. Don’t solely rely on the knowledge of coaches or other parents when making decisions for your child.  Know the facts, so that you can make correct decisions for your child in the event of an emergency.   
  • Form a Committee: Get together with other parents and form a safety committee to conduct regular safety meetings at practices and games!
The parents of Max Gilpin (and too many others) deserve a national policy initiative that mandates certification in coaching sports. Those same parents need to be educated in injury prevention practices to arm them with knowledge to protect their child and a voice to advocate for change. Today, that is my mission.