The consequences of punitive exercise in collegiate sports on display in Lee v. LA Board of Trustees
By: Elizabeth Catalano, Esq., Dylan F. Henry, Esq., Kimberly L. Sachs, Esq.
Earlier this year, a Louisiana Court of Appeals upheld a $659,227.50 jury verdict awarded to a student-athlete who suffered permanent, career-ending injuries after the coaches at Grambling State University (“GSU”) ordered him to run more than four miles in forty minutes as punishment for arriving late for basketball training. This article summarizes the case of Lee v. LA Board of Trustees and discusses the physical and legal risks associated with punitive exercise in intercollegiate sports.
GSU Basketball’s Deadly “Tiger Mix”
Jacobee Lee (“Lee”) first arrived on campus at GSU on August 12, 2009, making him three days late for Head Coach Rick Duckett’s required reporting date for basketball players. Despite the late arrival, after attending a team meeting on August 14, Lee and the rest of the team reported to the gym for an hour-long unofficial weightlifting session. Just a half hour after the session ended, Assistant Basketball Coach Stephen Portland told Lee and several others that they had forty minutes to run four and a half miles around campus as a consequence of arriving late to start the semester. If the student-athletes did not finish in time, they would be required to complete the run again on another day. This notorious disciplinary run was called the “Tiger Mix.”
During the Tiger Mix, Coach Portland followed the players in a golf cart. He provided no water or other fluids to them, even though the temperature outside was ninety five degrees—GSU’s football program cancelled practice that day due to the extreme heat. No athletic trainers or other medical personnel were present during the run, let alone made aware that it was even happening.
After barely completing the Tiger Mix and arriving back at the gym, a GSU player, Henry White, passed out and became unresponsive. Lee also passed out after finishing the run. An assistant coach called the team’s athletic trainer to inform her of White’s and Lee’s condition. The athletic trainer put ice on White and called for EMS, who transported him to the hospital. The athletic trainer also sent Lee to the hospital in an ambulance after noticing he too was having difficulty breathing while teammates were putting ice on him. At the hospital, Lee and White shared a room, separated only by a curtain so that Lee could hear White’s continued difficulty breathing. Lee was experiencing elevated creatine phosphokinase (CPK) levels and majorly dehydrated due to heat exposure. He was diagnosed with heat exhaustion and mild rhabdomyolysis (the breaking down of skeletal muscle that can be caused by extreme physical activity), and remained in the hospital for two days before he was released.
White, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. He died on August 26, 2009; with his death attributed to the complications associated with the severe heatstroke he suffered during the Tiger Mix.
An Abruptly-Ended Athletic Career
For several months after running the Tiger Mix, Lee was unable to return to competitive basketball at GSU because his CPK levels would rise upon physical exertion. Although he remained at school after the incident, Lee failed four of his classes during the fall semester and later withdrew from GSU. In January 2010, he enrolled at Southern University in Shreveport where he was physically cleared to play basketball. He played only three games before being benched for academic and disciplinary reasons.
In February 2010, Lee was hospitalized for a second time after playing in an independent basketball tournament. He presented with a fever, a skin disorder, and a UTI, as well as elevated CPK levels, which resulted in a week-long stay in the hospital. Dr. Robert Goodman, a rheumatologist, found the existing elevated CPK level was caused by his exertion in the basketball game, and that his persistent elevated CPK level was caused by the heatstroke he suffered after running the Tiger Mix in August. It was Dr. Goodman’s opinion that the Tiger Mix-induced heatstroke resulted in permanent, irreversible physical damage to Lee and permanent exercise intolerance. This condition effectively ruled out Lee’s future playing college basketball, any potential future in professional basketball, and any non-sports career options involving physical exertion, manual labor, or joining the military.
GSU’s Negligence on Trial in Lee v. LA Board of Trustees
Lee filed a suit against the Louisiana Board of Trustees for State Colleges and GSU in August 2010 for the personal injuries and damages suffered as a result of the defendants’ negligence. The parties disputed at length Lee’s potential future earnings based on competing projections of his basketball career. Seven years later, in 2016, the case went to trial where the jury awarded Lee $2.5 million in damages. Because of Louisiana’s cap on general damages against the state, the award was reduced to $660,000.
On appeal, GSU argued that the trial court erred in allowing Lee’s high school coach Errol Pipkins to testify to Lee’s future basketball potential and earning capacity, and in allowing GSU’s strength and conditioning coach Thomas Stallworth to testify as an expert. Stallworth testified that he believed the Tiger Mix was “a blatant disregard for athletic rules and regulations and NCAA policies.” GSU further argued that the damages awarded were excessive. Lee also appealed the trial court’s decision to vacate the jury award for future economic losses as being subject to the cap on general damages.
Earlier this year, the Louisiana appellate court upheld the $660,000 verdict.
Never Use Exercise As Punishment
In 2009, ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a report outlining its investigation into the Tiger Mix and White’s death. It revealed GSU violated several NCAA rules and its own school protocol, including the fact that the team’s athletic trainer had yet to clear the team to work out, and she was not aware of the run taking place.
In addition to these violations, the more important concept underlying White’s death and Lee’s permanent physical harm is this: physical activity should never be used for punitive purposes. This was recently highlighted by the NCAA Sports Science Institute in its Interassociation Recommendations: Preventing Catastrophic Injury and Death in Collegiate Sports. The practice of exercise as punishment “invariably abandons sound physiologic principles and elevates risk above any reasonable performance reward.” Essentially, the minimum expectation is that all strength and conditioning sessions should be “evidence-or consensus-based; sport-specific; intentionally administered; appropriately monitored, regardless of the phase of training; and not punitive in nature.”
Similarly, the National Athletic Trainer’s’ Association previously recommended that “Physical activity should not be used as retribution, for coercion, or as discipline for unsatisfactory athletic or academic performance or unacceptable behavior. No additional physical burden that would increase the risk of injury or sudden death should be placed on the athlete under any circumstance.” The NCAA report also suggests that all athletics personnel, sport and strength and conditioning professionals, and primary athletics health care providers, should intervene if they suspect that physical activity is being used as punishment.
Letting “Common Sense Prevail”
So, what exactly constitutes exercise as punishment? The NCAA does not provide a formal definition, but the FAQ document associated with the report describes punishment workouts as “more than just extra exercise.” They are workouts motivated by anger or frustration and may include a volume and intensity of exercise corresponding to that anger and frustration, (although intent may be difficult to establish later). The volume and intensity of a punitive workout are not part of a planned workout or based on principles of exercise science and physiology, but rather are used to make athletes “tougher” or to create a team culture of “accountability.”
Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer for the University of Oklahoma’s football team, noted that ad lib punishment workouts commonly occur immediately after a regular, planned workout as something extra and punitive. The NCAA similarly described them as “unplanned, spontaneous, are inconsistent with the conditioning level of the athlete or team, are not logically progressive in intensity, and are not sport-specific in their nature.” The Tiger Mix should be the dictionary example for punitive exercise: it is a non-sport specific, high intensity run, ordered in response to anger over athletes’ conduct, where dangerous weather conditions were not accounted for (or worse, were accounted for and ignored), the athletic training and medical personnel staff were kept in the dark, and which resulted in the death and permanent injury of two student-athletes.
According to Scott Anderson, the suggested “never” policy for punitive exercise is not popular with coaches, and many will “absolutely not” abide by it. For coaches and other team personnel, when it comes to certain conditioning sessions or exercises, the question of “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” should be asked, and “If you can’t answer that question, you shouldn’t be doing it,” says Anderson. Despite possible push back from coaches, in evaluating whether conditioning or exercise is considered punitive, “common sense should prevail.”
Therefore, in keeping with the NCAA’s most recent recommendations to avoid catastrophic results like the Tiger Mix and to avoid crossing the line into punitive exercise, any training or conditioning sessions or extra sessions desired by coaches should be planned in advance, conducted with competent athletic trainers and personnel present, and be clearly unrelated to any punitive purpose.
Dylan Henry and Kim Sachs are associates in Montgomery McCracken’s Litigation Department and members of the firm’s catastrophic sports injury defense team. The team represents universities, schools, athletic trainers, and other sports programs and staff in a variety of sports-related and head injury litigation, which include claims for negligence (e.g., failure to warn, premature return to play), products liability, breach of contract, and professional malpractice, and advises clients on complying with various rules, regulations, and laws, and maintaining policies in compliance with best practices and industry standards.
Elizabeth Catalano is an associate in Montgomery McCracken’s Litigation Department.
 Lee v. Louisiana Bd. of Trustees for State Colleges, 2019 WL 1198551 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/13/19).
 White’s death was the subject of a wrongful death suit against GSU (https://aerochug.com/family-files-wrongful-death-lawsuit-against-grambling/), as well as a two-month “Outside the Lines” investigation by ESPN. See Mark Fainaru-Wada, Questions linger for Grambling State, ESPN (Nov. 27, 2009) https://www.espn.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4693697.
 See Fainaru-Wada, supra.
 See NCAA Sports Science Institute, Interassociation Recommendations: Preventing Catastrophic Injury and Death in Collegiate Athletes, at 10 (July 2019) https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/ssi/injury_prev/SSI_PreventingCatastrophicInjuryBooklet.pdf (emphasis added).
 Douglas A. Casa et al., The Inter-Association Task Force for Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions: Best Practices Recommendations, Journal of Athletic Training Vol. 47, No. 4, 477-480 (July/Aug. 2012) https://natajournals.org/doi/abs/10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.08.
 Id. (Recommendation 5: Responsibilities of Athletics Personnel).
 See NCAA Sports Science Institute, Interassociation Recommendations: Preventing Catastrophic Injury and Death in Collegiate Athletes — Frequently Asked Questions, at 6 (July 2019) https://ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com/ssi/injury_prev/SSI_CatastrophicInjuryPreventionFAQs.pdf