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January 25, 2009 10:08 PM

The Shawon Dunston Chronicles: A Rifle-Armed, Championship-Less Look at Sports and Law

Posted by Zach Lowe

We're going to lead with a somber question: If a football player dies of heat stroke during a practice, should his coach be held criminally liable?

That's the crux of a landmark case in Kentucky, where a grand jury has indicted David Jason Stinson, Pleasure Ridge Park High School's football coach, on one count of reckless homicide in connection with the death of 15-year-old Pleasure Ridge Park sophomore player Max Gilpin. The teen collapsed at practice on August 20, 2008, and died three days later. His body temperature had climbed to 107 degrees before he died.

Stinson--whose lawyer says will plead not guilty when he is arraigned on Monday--is believed to be the first person ever charged criminally for a heat index-related football death, though more than 100 football players, includng the late Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer, have died after practicing in intense summer heat, according to USA Today.

(Loads of civil cases have been filed in connection with such deaths, and a suit that Stringer's widow filed against Riddell, a football equipment maker, is pending, court records show. Cincinnati-based torts king Stanley Chesley filed the suit against Riddell, claiming the company's helmets and shoulder pads contributed to Stringer's death by essentially acting as a heater. Courts dismissed Stringer's suit against the Vikings, records show.)

The heat index stood at 94 degrees on the day Gilpin died, and Todd Thompson, one of two attorneys who have filed suit against Stinson and five assistant coaches on behalf of Gilpin's family, says a temperature that high is supposed to trigger a series of requirements under Kentucky high school athletic rules. Among them, according to Thompson: Kids should get water whenever they want, and should have access to towels soaked in ice. (The assistant coaches have not been criminally charged.)

Thompson claims he has turned up witnesses (parents watching a nearby soccer practice) who say Stinson denied several player requests for water on the day in question. The coach also reportedly threatened to force the kids to run until someone quit the team. Finally, Thompson alleges, the coaching staff waited 17 minutes after Gilpin collapsed to call an ambulance.

It's also a unique case for Thompson, who says he usually defends hospitals and is therefore conflicted out of most personal injury suits.

WINNING BID FOR LOVABLE LOSERS

For months, Chicago Cubs fanatics have tracked the gossip surrounding who will buy their beloved team from the bankrupt Tribune company. The winner? Tom Ricketts, head of the Chi-town investment bank Incapital and son of the founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Co.

The Am Law winner? That would be Foley & Lardner, Ricketts' longtime counsel which advised on the Cubs talks. Ricketts is to pay $900 million for the famous franchise. While that's a record price for a baseball team, it buys Rickets gorgeous Wrigley Field (where the Am Law Daily had a classic father-son moment in the mid-1990s), and a piece of a regional sports network, reports say

The losing bidders include Marc Utay, a Chicago private equity player who turned to a team from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Partners Jeffrey Samuels (a Mets fan) and Paul Ginsberg (Yankees supporter) led the firm's team. They did not return messages. Hersch Klaff, a Chicago real estate tycoon, was the third finalist.

In other Cubs news, the team has retained Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal to file a complaint against Under Armour for allegedly backing out of a $10.8 million sponsorship agreement that was supposed to run though 2013.

The two parties agreed to the terms of a deal in September but never signed it. Still, Under Armour acted as if the deal had been finalized, the complaint says. The company accepted primo seats to Cubs games in late September, sought--and received--permission to film a commercial in Wrigley Field in late October and featured Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano (bane of the Am Law Daily's fantasy team) on its Web site through late January.

Then a a not-so-funny thing happened. Under Armour announced annual earnings were lower than expected, its stock price dropped 15 percent, and company execs decided that, thank you very much, but we'd really like out of that sponsorship deal; which, in turn, prompted the Cubs to sue.

One note of interest to purist fans: Per the deal's terms, Under Armour advertising was to adorn Wrigley's famous ivy-covered outfield walls, proving that nothing is sacred.

NO INSURANCE AGAINST THIS KIND OF BREAKUP

In another sign that the U.S. financial crisis is rippling beyond the country's borders, AIG is ending its sponsorship of the Manchester United soccer club (the Yankees of English soccer and the team that gave soccer legend David Beckham his start). The troubled insurer will not extend its deal to have its logo sewn onto Man U's otherwise pretty red unis, a privilege that has cost AIG $25 million a year. (The current deal runs through 2010, but AIG is looking to get out before then.)

After all, it doesn't look too good to be paying that kind of money to have Wayne Rooney wear your logo while he stomps an opponent's nether regions if you're relying on the U.S. government to bail you out to the tune of some $152 billion.

Michael Wiseman, a partner on the Sullivan & Cromwell team handling AIG's bailout work, says the firm played no role in the decision to ditch Man U.

BROKE MAYBE, BUT NOT DEAD YET

One last bit of news, and one that's close to our hearts, since the Arena Football League shared The Am Law Daily's old HQ on Madison Ave. and 30th St. As we've reported before, the AFL cancelled its 2009 season, and, as the New York Daily News reported this week, the players are just a bit upset about the lack of a paycheck. 

But the league isn't dead, says David Feher, a Dewey & LeBoeuf partner who represents the AFL players union along with his partner Jeffrey Kessler. If those names sound familiar, it's because the same duo represents the National Football League's Players Association. Feher says the union and the team owners are negotiating...well, basically everything. Feher wouldn't get specific, but he says everyone is "working hard" to get the league up and running again. 

Reading between the lines, it seems like anything is on the table--including the use of a single-entity ownership structure (where the league in effect owns the teams) and a return to an on-field system where players have to play both offense and defense. At The Am Law Daily, we consider ourselves big sports fans, but we did not know the AFL played a version of iron man football until 2007. That's pretty cool. Go back to that, and we may start watching. 

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