Personal Injury

Be A Winner: Avoid Heat-Related Sports Illnesses

By Shulamit Shvartsman, Attorney

Spring and summer months bring outdoor training for many school sports teams like baseball and track. In July and August, the hottest months of the year for most areas in the US, student athletes ramp-up for football and other high energy sports. These months mean outdoor activities for many others, too. Walking, jogging or playing frisbee at the beach may be on your schedule.

Anyone outdoors doing any type of physical activity during warm - and HOT - weather needs to be on the lookout for heat-related illnesses.

What Are Heat Related Illnesses?

There are many heat-related illnesses, but some of the most common include:


  • Symptoms: Thirst; dry skin, mouth and mucous membranes, concentrated, dark urine, headache, cramps, dizziness, confusion or irritability
  • Treatment: Drinking water or a sports drink such as Gatorade. In more severe cases, intravenous delivery of fluids may be necessary

Heat Exhaustion

  • Symptoms: Pale, cool, clammy skin, profuse perspiration, headaches, dizziness, delirium, nausea, rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Treatment: Remove the person to a cool place with head lower than body, loosen tight clothing, provide liquids such as water, sports drinks or juices. Call for medical assistance in case intravenous hookup is necessary

Heat Stroke

  • Symptoms: Wobbling and collapsing, elevated body temperature, hot and dry skin, harsh, loud breathing, convulsions and even unconsciousness
  • Treatment: Cool the person in water or by applying ice packs to the groin, neck and armpits while awaiting the arrival of medical assistance, loosen clothing, fan constantly and provide cold drinks

On hot days, if you're already not feeling well, take a break and be sure to drink plenty of liquids.

Tragic Lessons

Heat-exposure deaths happen occasionally in football, the most famous example being Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer in 2001. Lawsuits have been filed in many of these cases.

In 2008, Max Gilpin, a high school football player in Kentucky, collapsed on the practice field during a hot August practice. He died three days later from heat stroke. Gilpin was one of six heat-related deaths in high school and college athletics in 2008. Since 1931, similar circumstances have surrounded the deaths of more than 120 athletes.

Is the Coach Responsible?

Following his death, Gilpin's parents sued the head coach, David Jason Stinson, the five assistant coaches and the school administrators. The suit claimed the coaches and school were negligent in causing Gilpin's death by denying him and other players water during practice. The parents and school ultimately settled the lawsuit.

Is It a Crime?

Coach Stinson was also criminally charged with reckless homicide. It was the first time a high school or college coach faced criminal charges over an athlete's heat-related death.

The charges were based on claims the coach denied the players water during extreme heat and a failure to call emergency medical services immediately. The coach faced up to five years in prison if convicted, but he was acquitted after a jury trial.

School Responsibility

In Gilpin's case, Kentucky High School Athletic Association guidelines require schools to provide athletes plenty water and monitor their water intake when the heat index is high. The heat index is a measurement of how hot it feels based on temperature and humidity. Many high schools and colleges have similar rules.

Schools can be held liable for not following their own rules, and probably for not having such rules in place. After Gilpin's death, schools across the country reexamined their rules to make sure tragedies like this don't happen again.

You're Responsible, Too

Whether you're the one outside playing or exercising or you have a student-athlete in the family, you have to take steps to protect yourself:

  • Pay attention to your body. Take a rest, find some shade and drink some water if you're thirsty or feel overheated
  • Know the warning signs of the most common heat-related illnesses and get medical attention immediately at the first sign of symptoms
  • Don't be afraid or ashamed to ask a coach for a break to get a drink of water. Talk to school officials immediately if a coach refuses
  • Check the rules for your local school district or athletic association about required water sources and break-times during practices and games
  • Parents: Attend a practice session occasionally to see if your child is offered water and breaks and takes advantage of the offers. Also, to your student about the importance of hydration during physical activities

Outdoor sports and activities are a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. Enjoy your activities to the max by making sure the heat doesn't get the best of you.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a student-athlete be penalized for honoring his body's limits during sports practices and events in extreme weather conditions, mainly late summer heat? What if a student has a medical condition such as allergies or asthma that is worse under harsh conditions - do coaches and trainers have to respect that?
  • What kind of policies and rules should a school district have regarding a child's limits during sporting events and practices? How should I proceed to encourage my school district to adopt an appropriate policy?
  • I participate in an organized volleyball league, what happens if we're playing and I pass out? Can I sue the league for making me play?
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