By Tyler White
Kent State University freshman football player, Tyler Heintz, died on June 13, 2017 when he suddenly collapsed during a preseason conditioning session held in preparation for the upcoming season.
Paramedics arrived at Dix Stadium just after 9:00 a.m.to find the 19-year-old player unresponsive. Heintz was transported to UH Portage Medical Center where despite efforts to revive him, he was pronounced dead at 11:34 a.m.
According to the Portage County Coroner’s Office, the preliminary findings of Dr. Dean DePerro indicate that Heintz died as a result of hyperthermia. The results of further investigation into the cause of his death will likely not be known for at least several months.
Hyperthermia is defined as an abnormal elevation of body temperature that often occurs when the body is unable to adequately disperse heat and cool itself down. Heat stroke is a condition which sometimes occurs when athletes are participating in drills in severe heat and humidity. Among other causes of hyperthermia are pre-existing medical conditions or potential side-effects from certain drugs, such as stimulants or medications. At this early stage, there has been no indication that Heintz’s hyperthermic condition resulted from such other causes. However, additional tests are being conducted to determine any other relevant factors that may have contributed to his death.
Weather Conditions and NCAA Off-Season Practice Regulations
Heintz died just two days after arriving on campus early, as most athletes do, to prepare both physically and academically for the upcoming school year. Standing at 6-4, 275 pounds, one could surmise that he may have been out of shape, and therefore ill equipped, to face the humid weather— 81 degrees with 65 percent humidity– and rigorous collegiate exercise regiments. However, Heintz’s high school football coach, Brent Fackler, was adamant that Heintz was both prepared and well-conditioned leading up to his untimely death, according to an article written by Elton Alexander on cleveland.com.
In addition to being a “workout warrior, often showing up to the weight room even before coaches” during the school year, Fackler also stated that he witnessed Heintz run fourteen 110-yard dashes, without issue, only four days prior to his death on June 13. Furthermore, Heintz spent countless hours working in the hot sun on his family farm in Kenton, and according to Fackler, led a clean, healthy lifestyle.
There has been increased research on the potential risks of practicing in hot or humid weather. Given the potential risks posed while engaging in drills and practices, primarily during the summer months when the heat and humidity can be significant, the NCAA has taken strict measures to ensure the health and safety of its student-athletes. If coaches and staff adhere to the guidelines and regulations outlined in the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook, it helps prevent hyperthermia from occurring and also prepares trainers to deal with emergency situations that may arise. Even in spite of proper precautions and appropriate practices, the potential still exists for a student-athlete to face a serious and potentially life-threatening health condition.
In an effort to protect collegiate athletes and prevent injury or death from occurring when extreme heat and humidity can be potentially fatal, the NCAA has established various rules and regulations that all coaches must follow. The “20-Hour Document” published on the official NCAA website outlines specific conduct that college football programs are required to follow both in the off-season and preseason. Regulations include acclimatization periods, walk-through practices without full equipment, limitations on length and frequency of practices, adequate recovery time between sessions, etc. It will be essential to determine whether these guidelines were being followed at the time Heintz collapsed. As coaches are restricted from hosting practices in the off-season, upperclassmen, conditioning coaches and trainers are in charge of the team. The NCAA also highlights mandatory procedures and guidelines in the “NCAA Sports Medical Handbook 2013-2014”, inclusive of an entire section dedicated to the prevention of heat illness. This particular section, which was drafted in 1975 and revised and updated in 2002 and 2010, requires student-athletes to provide a complete medical history and an updated physical. Coaches and trainers are expected to implement an acclimatization period for athletes to enable them to grow accustomed to new environments. Athletic staff must grant frequent rest periods, appropriate athletic attire, ample hydration, emergency training for team physicians in the case of any heat-related emergencies, etc. The medical guidelines are thorough and extensive as the NCAA continues to strive for and commit to the utmost safety and well-being of its student-athletes.
NCAA Off-Season Injury and Death Statistics
Heintz joins the list of dozens of college football players who have died as a result of hyperthermia in the last four decades. According to a study conducted by the American Meteorological Society in 2011, there have been numerous cases where similar circumstances — time of year, humidity, etc. — have contributed to the death of young student-athletes. This study states, “During the period 1980-2009, there were 58 documented cases of death due to hyperthermia in football players across the United States. … Deaths were most common during the first half of August, when players are not acclimatized to working out in hot and humid conditions.” The study further states that “over half of the deaths occurred during morning practices, a time perceived as safe in an effort to avoid the higher temperatures of the afternoon. The higher humidity present in the morning, however, can be just as detrimental. By position, linemen are disproportionately represented among the deaths, comprising 86 percent of cases in which position information is available.” The diagnosis of Heintz with hyperthermia would at least preliminarily be consistent with the results of this study. The results of the ongoing investigation will be instrumental in determining the factors which caused Heintz to develop hyperthermia.
Potential Cause of Action for Heintz’s Family
It likely remains too early in the investigation to determine any potential wrongdoing as all of the relevant facts and information have yet to be fully developed. There has been no indication to date that Heintz’s death was caused and/or contributed to by any conduct and/or omission of the Kent State University Athletic Department overseeing the preseason conditioning session. Heintz’s family would need to establish that University personnel responsible for conduct and oversight of this conditioning session breached a duty of care to their son by failing to follow, amongst other things, the NCAA’s mandatory procedures and guidelines which was a proximate cause of his death. Alternatively, the Heintz family would need to establish that University personnel were aware of possible warning signs which their son may have exhibited prior to the time of his collapse on the field and either took no action and/or rendered improper medical attention. There has been nothing made public to date to substantiate such claims.
Other Cases of Potential School/Athletics Liability
It is customary to investigate the unnatural death of such young, seemingly healthy student-athletes. In some cases, such as the death of 21-year old Kent State football player Jason Bitsko in 2014 due to natural causes (an enlarged heart) there is no basis for a lawsuit. The proximate cause of Bitsko’s death, who was found unresponsive in bed at his off-campus apartment, was not negligence, but rather a diagnosed medical condition. However, other occurrences have resulted in litigation. One such case is the death in 2008 of Erick Plancher, a wide receiver at the University of Central Florida. Plancher had sickle cell anemia, a condition that disrupts oxygen flow throughout the body when under intense physical distress. UCF coaches, with knowledge of his potentially life-threatening condition, allegedly pushed Plancher far too hard in practice leading to cardiac arrest. Plancher’s family filed a wrongful death suit on the grounds that the collective negligence of the UCF athletic association, coaches, and staff caused their son’s death. The Plancher family obtained a judgment for $10 million, but an appeals court reversed the decision. According to the Associated Press, as reported in the Tampa Bay Times, “The court ruled UCF’s power of control over its athletics association — UCFAA — was sufficient for sovereign immunity afforded to state agencies in civil judgments. The $200,000 figure is the most a state agency is required to pay under legislative statute. Any higher amount requires approval of the legislature.”
Any potential wrongful death action on behalf of Heintz against Kent State University, a public institution, and/or its employees, will likely be impacted by the Ohio state claims act. Ohio Rev. Code Ann.§§ 2743.01, et seq.
The investigation into the facts and circumstances of Heintz’s death is ongoing. There are still more questions than answers at this time. As such, the merits and viability of legal recourse for the death of Heintz is presently unknown.