Legal Questions swirl around the fatal workout and precautions taken for sickle-cell trait athlete
By Lyssa Myska Allen
The facts are simple. University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman receiver from Naples, collapsed after an offseason workout supervised by Knights Coach George O’Leary and his staff on March 18. He was transported to a nearby hospital and died about an hour later.
The death is mired in controversy because Plancher carried the sickle-cell trait, a condition that can be exacerbated by intense physical activity. Intense activity can hamper the ability of cells to carry oxygen to different parts of the body, resulting in malformation, or “sickling,” of cells in the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, adrenal glands, and thymus.
UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble said in a statement last month, “As we have said throughout, Ereck passed all of his physicals and was cleared to participate fully by UCF team physicians. Our staff advised Ereck of his sickle-cell trait and monitored his physical condition at every practice and workout.”
The NCAA and National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommendations say athletes with the sickle-cell trait can participate in sports and training activities if monitored closely. The 2008-09 NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook says, “The harder and faster athletes go, the earlier and greater the sickling … Sickling can begin in only two to three minutes of sprinting, or in any other all-out exertion of sustained effort, thus quickly increasing the risk of collapse.”
The NCAA suggests an athlete with sickle-cell trait be given rest and recovery between repetitions, and not go beyond 2-3 minutes in all-out exertion of any kind. The NATA writes, “As the player rests, sickle red cells regain oxygen in the lungs and most then revert to normal shape, and the athlete soon feels good again and ready to continue.”
On July 17, the Medical Examiner’s Office in Central Florida released its autopsy, stating that Plancher died of sickle cell trait, concluding that the “sickling of the red blood cells caused (an) obstruction of the vasculature leading to decreased or absent blood flow to his muscles and internal organs leading to rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown), ischemia, dysrhythmias, and death.” In other words, Plancher’s heart stopped when his red blood cells became malformed during a workout.
“We’re pleased that the Medical Examiner’s report has been released, as it is an important step in the healing process for Ereck’s family and the UCF community,” Tribble said.
Plancher Family Takes Steps Toward Lawsuit
But the healing process may be a long one, as the Plancher family took the first steps toward filing a lawsuit on August 1 when their attorney, J.D. Dowell of the law firm Pitisci, Dowell, Markowitz and Murphy, gave formal notice of the lawsuit intention in a letter to the university and the University’s Board of Trustees.
Under Florida statute, the Planchers cannot file a lawsuit until UCF either denies the negligence claim or six months have passed. Filing the letter is the first step, but does not necessarily mean the Planchers will sue.
The letter, signed by Dowell, alleges, in part: “… While participating in those drills, Ereck Plancher was overexerted, collapsed and subsequently died … As a direct and proximate result of the University of Central Florida’s negligence, Ereck Plancher collapsed and died.”
The letter continues, “Please be advised that Enock Plancher, as personal representative of the Estate of Ereck Plancher, intends to pursue all claims and damages entitled to the survivors and the Estate pursuant to the Florida Wrongful Death Act.”
The wrongful death charge is based on both Plancher’s supervision and the controversial workout. Coach O’Leary provided a timeline of the workout, saying the preseason practice consisted of 75 minutes of weightlifting; 10 minutes of stretching; an agility course, or “mat drills,” lasting “exactly 10 minutes, 26 seconds;” two 18-second sprints, a team huddle, and some calisthenics. Practice ended at about 10:45 a.m.
In multiple, independent interviews with the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, four UCF players said the workout was intense, that Plancher was woozy and staggering during the final portion of the drills, and that he was cursed at by O’Leary for lack of effort. The players described the workout as very tough, saying multiple players vomited. One of the veteran players told the Sentinel, “It was the toughest workout since I’ve been here.” The players were granted anonymity because they said they feared losing their scholarships. O’Leary has denied those claims and described it as a routine drill that was not very taxing.
O’Leary did say that Plancher fell to one knee as the team broke its final huddle. He said that he did not see Plancher collapse but turned to see trainer Robert Jackson talking to the fallen player. By then, the anonymous UCF players said, Plancher was not responding as trainers. Players said they carried Plancher outside and laid him on a bench outside the indoor practice facility.
According to the UCF Police Department’s incident report, a 911 call was
made at 10:48 a.m. Rescue breathing and CPR were being administered when EMS arrived. Plancher was unconscious on the bench with an automatic external defibrillator already attached. Plancher was placed in an ambulance at 11:06 a.m and was pronounced dead at 11:51 a.m.
“The Plancher family has been frustrated by the fact that they have not been able to get an accurate account of what happened during the conditioning drills on March 18,” Dowell said in a prepared statement. “They feel very strongly that they do not want any other families to go through what they are going through.”
For their part, the UCF football team is trying to move on as they get into preseason workouts. Tribble says, “Although we continue to move forward as a program, we will never forget Ereck. Our players will honor his memory in part by wearing an “EP” logo on their helmets this season.”