Can we admit that legal drugs are as deadly as the illegal variety?

Friday, October 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The trial of coach David Jason Stinson, charged with the 2008 death of Kentucky high school football player Max Gilpin, passed largely under the radar this month.

Most media were expounding ad nauseam on the prospect of Michael Vick’s return to the arena — the one with men who sport shoulder pads, not canines who sport teeth — or on the fact that KU’s football and basketball teams repeatedly engaged in fisticuffs without any “public” punishment.

But Max Gilpin is news. Real news. For the first time, according to attorneys, a football coach was charged with reckless homicide in the death of a player. Gilpin died of heat exhaustion after his coach made the team run wind sprints sans water as punishment for a “lack of effort.” Temperature that day: 94 degrees.

Coach David Stinson was acquitted, however, because Gilpin was taking creatine and Adderall. The first is a dietary supplement to build muscle; the second is a drug he was prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder. Expert witnesses testified that each factored into Gilpin’s dehydration, and therefore his death.

This begs so many questions that it astounds me how easily the story was swept aside. How many teen athletes are swallowing a grab bag of meds and muscle-boosters daily? Are coaches aware of what their players are taking? Does anyone care?

I’m not interested in taking shots at Stinson. Living with it will be hard enough, and besides, he might as well be every football coach I’ve ever had. Pushing players to the brink of their endurance is the norm. During the height of twice-a-day practices in August heat, garbage cans were hauled out so we wouldn’t vomit on the field. Another time, my coach was supposed to cancel practice due to a smog alert, which he cheerfully ignored. His advice: “Breath carefully.”

But few would disagree that coaches should know what’s going into their players’ bodies. I’ve heard many educators declare, with the best of intent, that schools should be allowed to submit athletes to random drug testing for marijuana, cocaine and steroids. Putting that thorny issue aside, can we at least admit that legal drugs can be just as deadly?  

I can’t attest to Adderall, but I used to snack on creatine like it was candy. In the space of a few months, I ballooned from 195 pounds to 215. My parents sat me down during winter break one year and gravely asked me if I was on steroids. Aside from diarrhea and an ever-present need for a water bottle, exactly what the hell was the stuff doing to my body? Good question. As with nearly all muscle-building supplements, creatine is not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration. And I tend to be skeptical of research studies because they're often skewed toward the agenda of whoever financed them.

But teenage boys don’t care about side effects, long-term effects, or any effects other than making their muscles bulge. Take a 16-year-old boy, put him on creatine and throw in an ADD drug like Adderall, Ritalin or Vyvanse — which are primarily amphetamines — and then push him to his physical max. On the face of it, that’s a perfectly legal recipe for disaster.

A Division One school like Mizzou, backed by a $50 million budget and an army of specialists, can afford to monitor their athletes individually. And they have a profit-driven motive to do so.  

But the typical high school team costs more money than it makes. And the coach is teaching a full load of classes in addition to keeping watch over his players, which could number anywhere from 20-60. 

To the credit of Gilpin’s community in Kentucky, the Jefferson County Public Schools now require athletes and at least one parent to watch a 40-minute video that highlights a range of subjects from dietary supplements to bacterial infections. That’s a start.  

But a whole generation has come of age who view anything that comes in a bottle or canister as safe territory when it’s not. And parents have rushed en masse to put their children on mood-altering drugs at any sign of emotional distress, to the point I wonder how anyone ever managed to reach adulthood without popping pills.

I don’t know the long-term effects of creatine and Adderall or their effects on bodies and minds in their formative years. What I do know is that they’re right there on the shelves and easy to come by, prescription or not.   

Coaches take note: If you don’t know what your players are ingesting shortly before banging their helmets into each other at a full sprint, now is a good time to ask.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and produces the radio show Global Journalist.




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