On responsibility

Selena Roberts has the “Point After” column again in Sports Illustrated this week, and she uses it to check in on the widow of Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Viking who died of heat stroke during a preseason practice.  It turns out that Kelci Stringer is doing terrific educational work, drawing attention to the importance of hydration, even within the macho world of football.

In soccer, we’re pretty good about the hydration thing.  On hot days, we limit activity–we even called a practice once because of heat, which I can’t remember *ever* happening when I was a kid in the South–and all coaches call formal water breaks during practices.  And the handout that all parents receive lists a water bottle as one of the mandatory things your child needs in order to play.  (Last season, a sponsor even donated water bottles for all the kids.)  So we take it pretty seriously.

I think that’s why this paragraph rubbed me the wrong way:

“I’ll never forget it,” says Kelci. “Kodie came home from practice [last summer] and said, ‘Oh, Mom, we didn’t have water today.’ I’m trying not to be the spooked widow mother, but I asked a coach, ‘Why didn’t he have water?’ You wouldn’t believe what he said to me: ‘Why didn’t you give him any?’ I’m thinking, How many other coaches think this too?”

Um, I think this!  It is amazing to me that parents will send their kid to a sports practice without water.  (Kids in my league are old enough to know better, too.) And yet, every practice or game, at least one or two kids won’t have anything to drink.*

You cannot seriously tell me that it is my job to provide water for my whole team.  Do I always have an extra water bottle or two?  Yes, of course.  But I can’t be expected to bring water for 10-14 kids, 3 times a week.  (Six times a week if we add in baseball here.)  Obviously we’re talking about youth sports here–once you get to high school, things are different.

Coaches have the responsibility to:

  1. Set the expectation that players will recover and hydrate during practice. (Or, “rest and drink,” as I would’ve said before getting certified.)
  2. Reinforce that expectation by regularly providing water breaks, by making sure that kids drink during said breaks (because “I’m not thirsty yet” is what that kid over there with heat exhaustion said), and by *never* withholding water as a disciplinary mechanism.
  3. Monitor the physical well-being of their players during practice.

Players, even in an under-8 league, have the responsibility to:

  1. Know that a full water bottle is something you bring to practice as automatically as your soccer ball or your cleats.

And parents are responsible for:

  1. Making sure their kid has water, because kids will be kids, and might forget.  And your volunteer coach has a dozen other kids to look after.
  2. Watching practice closely enough to notice if your kid seems lethargic.

It’s possible Stringer meant that her son’s coach didn’t give them a water break, which would in fact be crazy.  But it seems like she means “the coach didn’t provide water.”

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4 Responses to On responsibility

  1. Bill Wandless says:

    I’ve admittedly got my own axe to grind, but I’m not much inclined to join the Stringer family fan club. Has the case of Stringer helped to raise awareness about an underacknowledged health issue and a conflicted, punitive culture? Absolutely. Are the measures that have arisen to correct corresponding problems in youth sports valuable and commendable? Absolutely. Do I sympathize with Stringer himself, a player who was crushed between the paradoxical imperatives that seemingly govern the lives of supersized athletes–the drive to become enormous and somehow slim at the same time? Absolutely.

    The Roberts report, however–specifically Kelci Stringer’s criticism of coaches, which raised your own dander–seems to fall in line with a pattern of displacement that has characterized the Stringer family’s “advocacy” efforts since litigation in the case of the father began. All the good that has arisen from the case appears to me to be incidental: the family is still in the process of exploring every option for monetizing the death of Korey Stringer–they’ve just hatched a suit against Riddell, the maker of helmets and shoulder pads, for their part in his death–and the investment in youth sports seems less like a disinterested effort to protect kids in general than to protect the family investment in the promising younger Stringer.

    Roberts seem to think that Stringer’s work is a cry for institutional accountability. That would be true if the suits against the NFL and the Vikings were unequivocally corrective efforts–attempts to challenge the militaristic macho culture that denies 350-pound men water and shade to toughen them up and force them to make weight.
    When those same legal efforts are directed against a company that makes protective equipment, however, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a different set of underlying imperatives is at issue.

  2. jbj says:

    Fair points all–I haven’t been following the Stringer story particularly closely since he died, and so focused on the low-hanging fruit, as it were.

  3. Bill Wandless says:

    I had a fairly active interest in the story because I was taking the product that allegedly contributed to Stringer’s death. Even though toxicology reports did not find ephedrine in his system (in a peculiar twist, no one is 100% sure if the examiner tested for the substance), the effort by the Vikings to pin the blame on ephedrine (and thus minimize their own legal liability) was enough to snap that particular branch of the nutraceutical industry. A casual search for details of the case will still dredge up articles that lay the blame for his heatstroke squarely at the door of Twinlab, the makers of the ephedra-laden Ripped Fuel, no matter that the only initial connection between Stringer and the product was that a teammate swore that Stringer said he took it on the day he passed away.

    The irony–and part of the reason for my umbrage against the surviving Stingers–is that the removal of ephedra (which still lives on in a variety of synthetic forms approved by the FDA) from the shelves would strike me as a legitimate response to the tragedy. Ephedra indeed elevates heart rate and core temperature, which is why the Ripped Fuel bottle used to be half-covered with warnings and strong guidelines for dosage. I can see that knee-jerk reaction, and I’m about 90% sure that the Stringers made an initial attempt to sue the manufacturer before their ambitions changed. Kelci Stringer herself later would admit that Korey Stringer used Ripped Fuel, although she wasn’t sure he did on the day he died.

    In the course of their climb up the chain of potential defendants, however, the Stringers actually tried to rule out the ephedra link, since that would stand in the way of suits against the Vikings and the NFL. Along the way they attempted to sue two coaches, a team athletic trainer, a team doctor, the practice where the team doctor worked, the attending doctor at the hospital where Stringer was treated for heatstroke, and now the makers of shoulder pads and helmets.

    Kelci Stringer claimed all along that she just wanted to know what happened to her husband. The pattern of litigation suggests to me that her quest for knowledge overshot that particular mark.

  4. Bill Wandless says:

    You might appreciate the new variation on the theme written by Rick Reilly over at ESPN:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=reilly_rick&id=4406915

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