by Irvin Muchnick
There have been significant civil lawsuit monetary recoveries in almost all of the 35 deaths in organized college football conditioning this century that preceded Braeden Bradforth’s from exertional heat stroke (EHS), on the campus of Garden City Community College in Kansas last August 1. So far, there have been no criminal cases.
It’s not too early to start coming to grips with the idea that the current evidence suggests Braeden Bradforth should be the first.
As chronicled in a long article in Sports Illustrated in 2010, the death two years earlier of a Pleasure Ridge Park (Louisville) High School player, Max Gilpin, also from EHS, is the only known instance of criminal prosecution of a football coach in the fatality of one of his athletes. Ultimately, Jason Stinson was acquitted by a Kentucky jury. The Jefferson County Public Schools system later settled the Gilpin family’s civil suit for just under a million dollars.
In a court trial, Jeff Sims — the Garden City head coach who has left Garden City for the same position at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin — would deserve the same presumption of innocence that Stinson got. Saying as much, however, is the not the same as presuming he will never nor should be prosecuted.
Garden City’s municipal police chief, Michael Utz, didn’t give Sean Bradforth, Braeden’s father, the time of day. The Kansas attorney general, Derek Schmidt, blew off the appeal of Vin Gopal, a New Jersey state senator advocating on behalf of Joanne Atkins-Ingram, Braeden’s mother, for a state investigation of the twisted background of the Sims punishment drill that killed Braeden.
Factors include his abandonment by the training staff at a moment when he might have been in dire distress; the calculated, slow, unprofessional response of the staff when the 19-year-old was discovered near death; and the cover-ups evident both in the head coach’s misleading or lying first-day public statements, and in the ongoing hiding by the college of the output of an internal administrative review it claims to have conducted.
But whether Sims or anyone else winds up in the slammer is secondary to the need for new approaches in addressing this pandemic of deaths of young Americans. As things stand, zealots dismiss them and neutral observers confront them only with resigned shrugs. Garden City is not the only place in this country where the local football program holds town and gown, together, in a sick stranglehold. We must start thinking about these fatalities in terms more humanistic than the cost of doing business. We are not talking here about a new set of shoulder pads.
EHS deaths are the right place to start, since experts are in agreement that they should never happen. And everything we know about Bradforth at Garden City points to the conclusion that this might be the worst case yet.
What would a more thoughtful and less politically beholden law enforcement authority than Chief Utz or Attorney General Schmidt be looking for? Three provisions of the Kansas Statutes Annotated (KSA) seem on point.
KSA 21-5403, “Murder in the second degree,” is defined as the killing of a human being either “intentionally” or “unintentionally but recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
KSA 21-5405, “Involuntary manslaughter,” is defined as killing “recklessly” or “in the commission of, or attempt to commit” another felony or misdemeanor “that is enacted for the protection of human life or safety.”
Such another measure designed to protect human life or safety might be KSA 21-5418, “Hazing,” which is defined as “recklessly coercing, demanding or encouraging another person to perform, as a condition of membership in a social or fraternal organization, any act which could reasonably be expected to result in great bodily harm, disfigurement or death or which is done in a manner whereby great bodily harm, disfigurement or death could be inflicted.”
Now, would proof of violation of any of these laws on the books be a slam-dunk? Of course not.
But given the reports of the verbal abuse of Bradforth by Sims both during and after the repetitions of sprint drills last August; and of the withholding of water in the summer heat, from Bradforth in particular and from all the student-athletes, by policy and common practice, in known defiance of athletic training industry standards; and of the evident annoyance of coaches and trainers, conveyed by eyewitnesses, at the news of “another passer-outer,” and of slow, ridiculous halfway measures such as the dousing of Bradforth’s inert body with a water hose prior to the summoning of 911 (which arguably establishes criminally negligent technical incompetence as well as callous indifference) …
… Given all these facts or allegations, it is time for the introduction of a principle so far unseen in college football conditioning deaths. That would be the concept of true deterrence. It is two quantitative steps up from doing nothing, and one qualitatively important one up from just being conveniently “outraged.” or throwing a particular bad actor under the unemployment bus, or complaining that the perpetrators have fled the jurisdiction and it’s too late to do anything “this time.”
What the collective record shows is that civil action to date has not deterred the institutions that put up with, enable, and profit from these events — events that must be highlighted for being outside the scope of human decency as it is normally understood. Maybe criminal action would make a difference.
DEATH OF BRAEDEN BRADFORTH — CHRONOLOGICAL HEADLINE LINKS