Two summers ago, a college junior at Towson University nearly died of heat stroke while running sprints at the end of football practice. If he takes the field for the Tigers this fall, he could be a first for medical, and legal, reasons.
Gavin Class started to stumble at the end of the team’s second workout on a 90-degree day, The Baltimore Sun reported. Athletic trainers noticed his slurred speech as he argued to finish practice. When he collapsed, they put the 305-pound lineman in a tub of cold water and called 911.
Paramedics took Class to a nearby hospital. His temperature on arrival was 108 degrees, after the cold tub. Doctors told his family that he would likely die.
He was transferred to Maryland Shock Trauma when his liver and kidneys started to fail and he suffered cardiac arrest. There, doctors determined that 95 percent of his liver had died. They placed Class on liver and kidney dialysis and soon performed a liver transplant.
The transplant was only the beginning of his recovery. Class underwent 14 surgeries to treat pancreatitis, pneumonia, appendicitis, shingles, infections and a collapsed lung. Despite all of those setbacks, Class fully recovered.
Now 22 years old and 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 and temperature monitors he would swallow each day.
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.”
Andrew Dansicker, the lineman’s attorney, explained to The Baltimore Sun that this case was 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.”
While I can appreciate his amazing medical accomplishments, I wondered about the legal aspects of this case and potential ramifications for future athletes who want to play despite not being cleared medically. I spoke to an expert in sports law to get his legal perspective.
Timothy Epstein is a partner at Duggan Bertsch, LLC in Chicago. He runs the firm’s Sports Law Practice. “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 told me. “While there are doctors supporting the kid, the university doctor is saying no, ‘You shouldn’t be able to play.’”
Epstein expects that Towson will appeal the ruling, and it is likely the appellate court would consider hearing it. “Sports cases tend to get the attention of judges.”
“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,” Epstein explained. “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.”
Epstein says he has argued before courts that an athlete should be eligible to play when a school claimed the athlete 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 he has seen where the judge is forcing the hand of the school for medical reasons.
Class’s case may be the first, but it probably won’t be the last. As more athletes fight to play against medical advice, courts might allow more of them back on the field.
“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 well-being because they have the right to enjoy life,” Epstein said.
Class’s case will be closely watched, 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 remarkable.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to drdavidgeier.com.