The case of Towson University football player Gavin Class intrigues me for several reasons. Being a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon, I obviously care about his near-death experience during a summer football practice. What interests me just as much, though, is the legal nature of his case. Given my lack of knowledge in that area, I reached out to an expert in sports law for his perspective.
Collapse at summer football practice
Two summers ago, a college junior at Towson University nearly died of heat stroke while running sprints at the end of practice. If he takes the field for the Tigers this fall, he could be a first – for medical and legal – reasons.
According to a series of articles by Mike Klingaman of The Baltimore Sun, Class started to stumble at the end of the team’s second workout on a 90-degree day. Athletic trainers noticed his slurred speech as he argued to finish practice. When he collapsed, they threw the 305-pound lineman in a cold tub and called 911.
Paramedics took Class to a nearby hospital. His temperature on arrival was 108° – after the cold tub. Doctors told his family that he would likely die.
Liver failure and much more
Gavin Class was transferred to Maryland Shock Trauma. His liver and kidneys began to fail, and he suffered cardiac arrest. There, surgeons determined that 95% of his liver had died. They placed Class on liver and kidney dialysis. Soon they performed a liver transplant.
The transplant marked only the beginning of his recovery. Class underwent a total of 14 surgeries to treat liver failure, pancreatitis, pneumonia, appendicitis, shingles, infections and a collapsed lung. Despite all of those setbacks, Class fully recovered.
Recovery but no return to football?
Now 22 years old and over 50 pounds lighter, he lifts weights with the football team indoors. Class cannot perform outdoor activities when the temperature exceeds 70 degrees, however. Towson and its team physician refused to allow him to play due to his risk of serious injury or death.
Class’s doctors at the University of Maryland claim he would be the first liver transplant patient to compete in a contact sport. Reportedly he was cleared to play football with protective abdominal padding. He would also swallow temperature monitors each day, and athletic trainers would check his temperatures regularly throughout each practice and game.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ordered the school to allow Class to return “as a full participant in its football program.”
A “groundbreaking” ruling
The lineman’s attorney, Andrew Dansicker, explained to The Baltimore Sun that this case is groundbreaking. “This is the first case in the country, that we’re aware of, where a federal judge has ordered a university to allow an athlete to play any sport against the decision of the university — and the first case where a judge has ruled that heatstroke is a disability.”
A sports law perspective
Timothy Epstein is a partner at Duggan Bertsch, LLC in Chicago. He runs the firm’s Sports Law Practice. I met Tim while we served as panelists for a recent symposium on the legal aspects of sports, along with the Co-Chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. I wanted to get Tim’s opinion on athletes fighting for the right to play against medical advice.
Is this the first case where a judge has forced a school to allow an athlete to play despite medical concerns?
“This is by far the first one I’ve seen where for a medical reason a judge has forced the hand of the school to say, ‘Listen I think this kid should be eligible’ against a doctor’s order,” Epstein explained to me. “While there are doctors supporting the kid, the university doctor is saying no, ‘You shouldn’t be able to play.’”
Is it likely that Towson would appeal this ruling?
“It would make sense that it would get kicked up to the next level, and the next level for them would be an appellate court…I would guess that they would take a look at this. Sports cases tend to get the attention of judges.”
How does this precedent affect high schools and colleges?
“We don’t like the term slippery slope, and I really don’t use it, but that’s what you’ll hear from the educational institution arguing against forcing a school to play or forcing an association to make someone eligible to play. What they’ll say is that a judge is substituting his judgment for that of a coach or an athletic director or executive director of an association, in the case of a high school association, or the president of the NCAA.”
Does an athlete have a right to play sports despite a medical condition or injury for which a doctor will not clear him?
“The legal framework behind the participation aspect in amateur or recreational sports, particularly one that’s linked with an educational institution, is that there is no constitutional right to participation in an extracurricular activity, whether it be student council, band, or a sports team. It’s a privilege. Because it’s a privilege, you don’t have the same constitutional guarantees that would be protecting you that you can go to a court for protection for participation.”
Epstein told me he has argued before courts that an athlete should be eligible to play when a school claimed he or she was ineligible. Cases of doping violations or kids transferring from private to public schools and not sitting out the required length of time are a few examples. This is the first case he has seen where the judge has ruled against a school for medical reasons.
What is the role of a waiver? Can a player agree to sign a waiver acknowledging that he understands the medical risks in order to play against medical advice? And how would courts look at such a waiver?
“Is it foreseeable that there could be a waiver that would be acceptable to a judge and acceptable to both parties that someone would be allowed to play? The further we get along and as the judiciary becomes more understanding that people who may have a disability have the ability to do some great things, and even might have the ability to do some physically great things. I think you are going to see more of a tendency to allow participation rather than disallow participation.”
Where are we headed with these issues?
“For people who are disabled or have diseases or viruses or injuries that prevent them from full enjoyment of life, I think there is more sympathy in the population to have them be entitled to do whatever it is they want to do even if there is some risk to their physical wellbeing because they have the right to enjoy life.”
I’ll be watching Gavin Class’s case closely, as it could impact athletes and team doctors at all levels. Regardless of how it plays out in the courts, his medical recovery and possible return to football is amazing.
What do you think about this ruling? Should athletes be able to go to court to fight for the right to play despite doctors and schools refusing for medical concerns? And what do you think about Class’s heatstroke and liver transplant? Share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the July 22, 2015 issue of The Post and Courier. Thank you to Mike Hopper, MS, ATC, LAT for alerting me to this story.
Judge rules Towson can’t bar Gavin Class from football practice. By Mike Klingaman. The Baltimore Sun. July 21, 2015.
Towson motion to dismiss Gavin Class’ lawsuit denied. By Mike Klingaman. The Baltimore Sun. June 30, 2015.
For Towson football player Gavin Class, near-death experience merely a ‘speed bump’. By Mike Klingaman. The Baltimore Sun. November 27, 2014.