A recent report on the death of a Garden City (Kansas) Community College player under the leadership of then-head coach Jeff Sims reveals a chain of failures that led to the tragedy. Sims is now the head football coach at Missouri Southern State University.
The independent report cites a “striking lack of leadership” by Sims and his staff. It reveals multiple missed opportunities to save a young man’s life, first by the athletic staff and then by emergency medical workers responsible for his subsequent care.
The document highlights problems in the training and coaching too common in the culture of college football. The incident offers lessons that must be learned to prevent future tragedies.
Though the game of football carries inherent risks, there is no good reason that college practices should be dangerous. Proper precautions and coaching must put student-athletes’ health and safety first.
Berating a struggling young man who the report states was overweight and out of shape — as fellow players say Sims did when Bradforth was too exhausted to finish a conditioning test — demonstrates the danger of the “iron man” approach to training. Players reported Sims called the young man “weak” and cussed him out. The fatal outcome shows just how dangerous a culture that mocks perceived weakness can be.
Bradforth’s death is not the only one caused by harsh, overly strenuous workouts in college football programs. Tough guy coaching has led to deaths for years now. NCAA statistics show that an average of two players per year die on the field. According to a 2017 study reported in the Journal of Athletic Training, about 18% of player deaths resulted from trauma — hard hits leading to concussions, for example. The rest are the result of brutal training regimens. For student-athletes, overly intense exercise on the practice field is more dangerous than the game itself.
Sound physical conditioning should be the focus of training, yet coaches appear to use punishing workouts in an effort to instill toughness and to encourage players to ignore physical and emotional distress. That approach has a long history and is deeply ingrained in football culture. It can be deadly.
Student-athletes are students first, and their safety should be the primary consideration. Football programs must review medical evaluations, including any physician recommendations, before the first practice; they must require training and refreshers for staff and players on recognizing heat illnesses and exertional distress; and they must emphasize taking immediate action when any player exhibits those symptoms. “Tough it out” should no longer be the approach to an exhausted and overheated player.
And for anyone who says this is the kind of coaching that produces winning teams, if you put winning ahead of student-athletes’ well-being — potentially, ahead of their lives — you do not belong on a coaching staff. You don’t even belong in the stands.