Summer Time Negligence and NCAA Football: Is Pushing a Player Too Hard Really Worth 10 Million Dollars?

The following article is a guest contribution by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.   Haynes is a former Division 1 Basketball Player at Oral Roberts University and currently practices law in the State of Florida.

It’s almost that time of the year, the time of the year when NCAA college football players all across the nation will be padding up and heading outside for unbearable two-a-day practices. There is no doubt that this is the hardest part of the year for these specific athletes. In states such as Texas, Florida, and California, the temperatures are usually in the 100’s. Throw humidity, heavy pads, and a helmet on top of that, while practicing from two to four hours out in the sun, and you have the potential for disaster.

This disaster became a reality for both Ereck Plancher and the University of Central Florida in 2008. During a UCF football practice, Ereck, a football player for UCF, went into cardiac arrest after going through severe conditioning drills. He later was pronounced dead at the hospital. An autopsy found that Plancher died because of a condition called Sickle Cell trait, which causes blood cells to become misshapen and disrupt the body’s vascular system when it’s put under extreme stress.

In 2009, Plancher’s parents brought a wrongful death action against the University. The Planchers’ attorneys argued that the combination of the grueling workout, and the trainer not knowing Ereck had the Sickle Cell trait, ultimately led to his death. While on the defense side, UCF’s attorney argued that it was an underlying heart condition that caused the death of the 19 year old.  During trial, several UCF football players testified that the coach denied the players water during the harsh conditioning drills. Even more disturbing, another UCF player testified to seeing Ereck falling down after one of the sprints, and the coaches specifically telling the players not to help him back up.

After a two week trial, the jury deliberated and found in favor of Plancher’s parents, finding that the University was negligent and owed the Plaintiff 10 million dollars in damages. The jury found no evidence of gross negligence and therefore punitive damages were not awarded.  In May of this year, UCF filed their appeal to the Circuit-Court’s ruling.

While the Ereck tragedy occurred during a spring workout in only 72 degree weather and 50% humidity, there is no doubt that the heat played a major part in Ereck’s death. If accidents like Ereck’s can happen during what Floridians would consider moderate conditions, Universities across the nation should observe this case and proceed with extreme caution.

In May of 2003, the NCAA implemented a mandatory five-day acclimatization period in order for these athletes to be able to adapt to the heat during these initial football practices. The period’s guidelines are as follows:

Equipment

  • On days one and two of the period, only helmets are allowed for the players.
  • On days three and four, only helmets and shoulder pads are permissible
  • On the last day, all pads are permissible.

Single Practice

  • Practice time is not allowed to exceed 3 hours a day.

Double Practice

  • Teams may have a one hour testing session and a two hour practice on one of the five days. However, three hours of recovery must be allowed between the testing session and the practice.

While this rule was implemented back in May of 2003, the NCAA has still seen 21 heat related deaths in college football since 2000. So then the million dollar question is asked, when does a coach know when to push an athlete harder and when to ease off of the gas? There is no doubt that all athletes need to be pushed both physically and mentally by a coaching staff. This is within the nature of sports in general. I have seen, first hand, athletes faking injuries or acting more tired than they really are in order to get out of further conditioning. This is the dilemma coaches and strength and conditioning personnel are facing every day in college athletics.

While there is no definite answer to the question presented, it is far better for coaches to air on the side of caution when determining whether a player needs to be further pushed, or whether it’s time to allow the player a water break. Especially in outdoor sports, such as football, the brutal heat and strenuous physical activity on a student athlete is not something coaches should take chances on. Coaches should give multiple water breaks and be extremely cautious and aware of any players who are showing any sign of true physical issues, and not just trying to get out of another sprint because they are lazy. Experienced coaches are usually pretty seasoned in having the ability to determine whether a player is truly on the border of physical injury, or just experiencing the fatigue that comes from sports conditioning, but like I stated above, it is best to air on the side of caution. Ask UCF.

Further, college football coaches need to make sure that they adhere to the five-day acclimatization period established by the NCAA in order to help their players adapt to the harsh conditions. As well as making sure that each player is being thoroughly examined in their preseason physicals. Football staff all across the nation needs to be aware of the seriousness of this issue in order to save young athletes lives and to avoid a poor public image. Oh, and avoiding 10 million dollar lawsuits aren’t a bad deterrent either.

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