Louisiana swelters in the summer. August is the most intense month, with enervating heat and humidity.
Athletes treat admonitions to hydrate well the way we all viewed our mothers' stern warning to stay out of the water for an hour after eating — with surface acquiescence and extreme skepticism.
In dozens of cases in the last 30 years athletes have died of dehydration. Henry White was a 21-year-old junior basketball player getting ready for his first season at Grambling State University. On Aug. 26, 2009 he showed up for the earliest conditioning workouts. He spent a rigorous session weight lifting. He then was punished for showing up to campus late by being forced to run four and a half miles on an a day in the heat and humidity of August in Louisiana. He collapsed upon finishing, and he died 12 days later.
An idealistic young attorney named Scott Chafin from Shreveport, La. called me a year ago to ask if I would be an expert witness in a lawsuit asking Grambling State for compensation for wrongful death. Henry had left a young son. My role would be to project what his earning curve would be had he lived and played professional basketball at any level, been involved in television commentary, or worked in his field of criminal justice.
I generally shy away from such testimony. There are many faults with the entire tort system; there should be a better way of compensating victims and punishing wrongdoers. But when the case is particularly worthy and makes a larger point about reform, I have agreed. I testified as an expert for the wrongful death trial that involved my client Derrick Thomas, who later perished of injuries he sustained in an automobile accident when his car flipped over on an icy freeway.
I testified for my friend Merlin Olsen, who died of cancer caused by exposure to mesothelioma. Each of those cases involved safety issues, and the chance for better prevention, as death from dehydration does.
Athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels train and work out every summer with a risk of dehydration. Signs of dehydration include fatigue, flushed skin, heat intolerance, light-headedness and dark colored urine. Fluid is lost and also chemicals like sodium and potassium. Too little or too much electrolytes like sodium and potassium in the body can cause trouble. Consumption of beverages containing electrolytes and carbohydrates can help sustain fluid-electrolyte balance and exercise performance.
A loss of more than 2% of body weight can create an emergency.
Chafin faced a daunting task in trying to get compensation for mother Tiffany Williams and her son. The county of Caddo Parish, Louisiana is very conservative, where jurors tend to look askance at large claims.
In front of the county courthouse sits a massive statue honoring the generals who fought for the South in the Civil War, placed there by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The courtroom looked similar to the setting of John Grisham's novel and the movie made from it, "The Rainmaker."
Chafin argued passionately that Grambling State did not have adequate emergency procedures and trained personnel to deal with White on the campus after he collapsed. The first protocol would have dictated placing the collapsed athlete into an ice bath in one of the tubs present in the training room. Chafin was able to show the jury that with the proper procedures in place, White might have lived. The jury proved to be wise and compassionate and returned an award, which will allow his child a more promising future.
This is a critical issue that needs to be revisited at professional, collegiate and high school levels. The younger an athlete is, the more risk he or she faces.
One Korey Stringer, lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, death should have been enough. Weekend warriors, runners, as well as younger athletes need to be prepared prior to play or practice for the dangers and able to avail themselves of proper emergency treatment if necessary.
Williams vs. Board of Supervisors sends a clarion call to all sports organizations, athletes and parents to be aware of the risks of dehydration.