We have seen the tragic deaths of football players following grueling workouts far too often throughout college football. What we end up searching for are answers, for ways to figure out how such senseless deaths could have been prevented.
Rarely, however, do we see courtroom dramas play out in front of us, with former players, trainers and a head coach being put on the witness stand to testify about the events that have led to such tragedy. That makes what is happening in Orlando so completely unprecedented.
Incredibly, the wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF Athletics Association has gotten little fanfare. Ereck Plancher collapsed and died after an offseason conditioning workout in March 2008. His parents are suing, contending UCFAA is responsible for his death. The lawsuit contends Plancher was never notified he had sickle cell trait, and coaches and trainers failed to notice the warning signs that showed he was in serious danger during the workout that cost him his life.
An autopsy showed Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait, a condition that is aggravated under extreme duress. UCFAA says Plancher was told he had sickle cell trait, but died of a congenital heart defect and nothing could have prevented his death. Throughout the course of this trial, two former players testified that coach George O'Leary shouted at Plancher to keep going when he was physically exhausted, and that O'Leary ordered water and trainers out of the workout.
O'Leary took the stand Thursday and was questioned for three hours, denying the allegations against him. O'Leary said no one ordered water and trainers out of the workout. But he did admit saying to Plancher, "You're better than that" after the player struggled through sprints. O'Leary said he did not know Plancher was going through a sickle-cell episode when he said that. "If you're asking me how I felt after everything went down that day, awful. I felt awful. I lost a member of the family that day," O'Leary said in court Thursday.
O'Leary also testified he did know Plancher had tested positive for sickle-cell trait. However, the trainer at the workout testified he did not know that key piece of information. Head athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden also testified in a video deposition Thursday that she could not say for certain whether she told Plancher he had sickle-cell trait after his tests showed he had the condition. There is no written record that Plancher was notified.
However this case is resolved, one has to wonder what the trial will mean for UCF and O'Leary. The head coach is not on trial, but there are serious allegations against him, and a player died on his watch. UCF determined in 2008 that it would keep O'Leary on as head coach despite the tragedy. Would thatchange if UCFAA loses the case?
My guess is no. None of the details that have emerged come as a surprise. They have been known for years. UCF has not been hampered on the recruiting trail because of this tragedy. In fact, the Knights had probably the best class in school history in 2011. Would thatchange if UCFAA loses the case?
Certainly a public trial with accusations and allegations flying does not help the image of O'Leary or the football program. It is appalling that there is no record of whether Plancher was told he had a condition that can become life threatening under extreme physical exertion. It is sickening that a player died, and you want someone to be held accountable.
But UCF has made the decision to stick behind O'Leary, and truly believes it did everything it could to help Plancher. That is why this case has gone to trial. Athletic director Keith Tribble told "Outside the Lines" in November 2008: "From what we have learned to date, our review of the March 18 workout has shown that coaches and staff acted appropriately."
The Plancher family wants answers, and they deserve them. No matter what happens, one can hope this trial serves as a bellwether for programs everywhere. It is hard to imagine grueling workouts coming to an end. Coaches are still going to push limits. But tragedies like these can be averted if we learn from what happened to Plancher:
1. Every school should have a policy in which each student athlete and coach is made aware of the conditions the players have, and these conditions are explained in a detailed and thorough manner. Then a document should be signed by the student-athlete, head athletic trainer and head coach acknowledging this process has occurred and kept on file.
2. Training in dealing with student athletes who have sickle-cell trait has increased, but more needs to be done to help educate not only trainers, but coaches and players about warning signs. The same goes for any other condition that could pose a threat to a player's life.
3. Vigilence is of utmost importance. Oftentimes it is players who are most aware of what is happening with their teammates. What is the difference between a player too exhausted to go on and one who is in serious danger? It may be hard to tell for an 18-year-old football player, but making a coach or trainer aware of potential problems could ward off tragedy. Yes, there are those who worry about being labeled a "quitter" or somebody who cannot hack the physical rigors of a workout, but potentially saving a player's life should not be something that gets a guy punished.