It should not be a surprise that Jefferson County Public Schools found that Pleasure Ridge Park coaches followed all policies correctly in the Aug. 20, 2008, football practice that wound up in the heat stroke death of freshman Max Gilpin three days later.
That’s what Superintendent Sheldon Berman said in an email to members of the school board just before 9 p.m. on Aug. 23, while Gilpin still languished on life support at Kosair Children’s Hospital. He died about 90 minutes after that email was sent.
That’s what JCPS director of athletics and activities Jerry Wyman told The Courier-Journal a day earlier, on August 22, though he later admitted in a deposition he hadn’t even interviewed the head coach involved.
It’s what JCPS spokesperson Lauren Roberts said — “it appears all guidelines and protocols were followed” — on August 25, two days after Gilpin died. At a school board meeting that night, Berman said the same thing.
So, no, it cannot be a surprise that after 10 months of investigating, JCPS officials would say the exact same thing that they were saying before the investigation ever really started — nobody did anything wrong.
It’s just that this time, they took 271 pages to say it.
Wait. Strike that. Of the 271-page report, 190 pages were simply excerpts and transcripts of Louisville Metro Police department interviews. So they took 81 pages to say it — plus exhibits that included written statements by its witnesses.
In fact, JCPS said it interviewed more than 125 witnesses for this report. But on Feb. 20, it said it had interviewed more than 100, meaning those last two dozen, which took about 4 1/2 months, must have been long ones.
Still, this 81 pages of original investigative work produced by JCPS is not insignificant.
I only wish someone over there had read it a little more closely before they’d issued their conclusions.
Here are the things that jumped out to me:
1. Practice vs. Conditioning.
JCPS subtly drew a distinction between “practice,” during which water breaks were given, and a harder-than-usual conditioning session after the actual football drills were complete, in which water breaks were, according to most players and to the JCPS findings, not given.
For instance, JCPS goes out of its way to say that, “Practice on Aug. 20 was a normal practice until the end of practice.” Yet it was after the end of what they define as “practice,” a lengthy session of “gassers” that Max Gilpin began to struggle and eventually collapse.
This conditioning session was anything but normal. Four assisstant coaches and numerious players made statements to the effect that Stinson was angry at how practice had gone and that players were running more because of it.
It was during these “gassers” that Max Gilpin began to struggle and eventually collapsed. It is also during these “gassers” that head coach Jason Stinson told his players that they would run until someone quit the team. JCPS acknowledged these facts.
It did not acknowledge that Stinson denied players water, even though 25 of the players interviewed in its report saw or heard at least one instance of a player denied water — most after the completion of the “gassers” — and the testimony of 48 players that there were no water breaks during the conditioning session, which was the most demanding physical activity of the day. Stinson himself, in an interview with police, acknowledged denying players water at the end of the sprints, making them wait until a team meeting had concluded. Gilpin wasn’t one of those players. He had already collapsed.
2. Availability of water.
JCPS said this: “While the plain language of the heat play rules states, ‘Provide ample amounts of water. This means that water should dalways be available and athletes should be able to take in as much as they desire,” the rules do not state that players should be able to take a water break whenever they desire.
Yet the rules also lay out a set schedule for water breaks — optional water breaks every 30 minutes for 10 minutes in duration. So the aforementioned rule about water always being available and players being able to take as much as they desire is in adddition to the optional breaks. The rule clearly is not saying that water should only be available during organized breaks. The wording clearly provides 1). For optional breaks of a certain duration and 2). For water to “always be available” to players at the amount they desire.
I suspect we’re going to hear, in court, a pretty good argument about what “always available” means. Independent trainers have told the C-J that the JCPS interpretation of this is way off.
In fact, five PRP coaches told JCPS in interviews that players generally can get water in practice whenever they ask for it, and one described players drinking water even during a drill. This leads one to believe that coaches go with the interpretation that “always available” does mean whenever players want it — but that water wasn’t always available during these conditioning drills.
(Many players, it should be said, reported that no one asked for water during the conditioning. This is common. When you always think the next sprint might be your last, the tendency is to try to run one more. This is where the coach’s judgment is most important. As the adult and the guy running the show, it’s important for coaches not to go too far.)
Finally, JCPS’ decision-making rationale lends itself to second-guessing. For instance, it discounted the testimony of eight witnesses at an adjacent soccer game who saw players being denied water during the “gassers. ” JCPS said those witnesses had seen only a part of practice. Of course, they were watching the very part of practice that is in question. As the only witnesses without a vested interest in JCPS or PRP, the only independent witnesses, it would seem that their accounts would carry more weight, not less. I suspect in a courtroom, they will.
In a section of coaches interviews, it seems that every coach was asked about Gilpin and supplements, but I don’t see any questioning on water availability during the conditioning, though there’s plenty of talk about how much water was available during the practice portion of the afternoon.
Regardless, the document JCPS produced shows exactly why it is appropriate for police and other authorities to get involved in these things.
JCPS was ready to clear its employees even before Gilpin had died. It did not move to investigate the matter until eyewitnesses came to The Courier-Journal. And its conclusions don’t seem necessarily consistent with some of the material its investigation produced.
Also, the rush to defend itself with Max’s alleged use of Creatine is questionable. They offer no evidence that he was taking Creatine during the season. The coach who retrieved his belongings found none of it. The coaches and administration were aware, however, that he was taking Adderall. But their knowledge of this only increases their responsibility where he is concerned, instead of diminishing it.
It’s going to be a complicated trial. I think medical evidence will play a large role. But clearly, after reading the conclusions that JCPS drew, discounting significant elements of even its own investigation, it’s best that this is going to be decided in the courts.