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Korey Stringer’s death 20 years ago changed football and sports safety, but not the law 

After the Vikings lineman’s death from complications of heatstroke, new protocols were adopted by the NFL and its 32 member clubs, including the Vikings, about training procedures, medical treatment, and other health-related matters.

Korey Stringer
Korey Stringer

The opening of the Minnesota Vikings pre-season football training camp this week in Eden Prairie, heading into the team’s seventh decade here, recalls the death 20 years ago, on Sunday, Aug. 1, of its star offensive tackle, Korey Stringer.

The huge 27-year-old all-Pro National Football League (NFL) lineman from Ohio State died on that day in 2001 of complications from heatstroke. His death occurred as the team was participating in workouts during a spell of extraordinary brutally hot weather, with temperatures in Mankato, where the squad then trained, hovering above 100 degrees.

The death of the pillar of power in the team’s offensive line, who left behind a wife, Kelcie, and young son, Kodie, was a seminal event in the lives of the family, Vikings, and pro football in general. It prompted changes in the game, how it is played and monitored, and the team, but not the law.

The upcoming 20th anniversary of Stringer’s death provides an opportune occasion to look at those features.

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Practice protocols

Stringer’s passing came years before the NFL and later other sports organizations, prodded by litigation, became serious about the deleterious effects on the health of the competitors, primarily relating to concussions.

But it did raise awareness of the need to pay attention to the safety of athletes. As a result, new protocols were adopted by the NFL and its 32 member clubs, including the Vikings, about training procedures, medical treatment, and other health-related matters.

Those procedures trickled down to college, high school, and lower levels of football and formed the predicate for other safety-conscious practices throughout the sports world.

Advocacy, research and educational efforts

Stringer’s death prompted his family to establish a nonprofit organization, funded by some of the proceeds of varied litigation arising from his death (more about that later).

Known as the Korey Stringer Institute, it was established in the spring of 2010. It has been devoted since then to advocacy, research, and educational efforts for prevention of injuries to athletes in all sports. While initially focusing on sudden deaths of athletes, like Stringer’s, it has branched out to other safety-related concerns.

The institute, housed at the University of Connecticut, has been, like its namesake, a big player in its field, advancing the health and safety of a multitude of athletes in a wide variety of sports at many different levels.

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Vikings vanquished

The Vikings did not fare as well. The team got off to a bad start when the visiting Carolina Panthers, led by quarterback Chris Weinke, a St. Paul native, began the initial game of the season by running back the opening kick-off 93 yards for a touchdown, vanquishing the local squad 24-13. It was an ignominious start for the disastrous season that followed, which was interrupted two days later by downtime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Once the season resumed, the weakened offensive line wilted, and the team ended up with a 5-11 win-loss record, prompting the coach Dennis Green to leave in a tumultuous departure. His vacancy was filled by Mike Tice, Stringer’s offensive line coach, who was blamed by some for driving the lineman and others too hard in the heat that preceded his death, although he was never proven to be culpable.

Tice remained as coach for the first part of the decade, overseeing a team in decline from its customary winning ways under his predecessor. It took nearly a decade, a change in ownership, the firing of Tice, and the short-lived acquisition of quarterback Brett Favre for the club to return to relevance. However, that didn’t last too long, either, before a period of middling successes and disappointments since that time.

A series of lawsuits

Stringer’s death precipitated a series of lawsuits by his family. A few of them yielded monetary settlements of undisclosed amounts from the team’s outside physician and his clinic, the NFL, and the manufacturer of Stringer’s helmet and other equipment.

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick
But the major case was ultimately thrown out of court. Stringer’s wife sued the Vikings and two of its training personnel. However, the lawsuit against the team was dismissed because, as an employee, he was relegated to a claim under the state’s workers compensation system, which provided much less compensation than could be sought and attained in a regular civil lawsuit.

His claims against the pair of team trainers, which could have triggered substantial liability on the part of the organization, also failed when the state Supreme Court in 2005 in a case entitled Stringer v Minnesota Vikings ruled by a 4-2 margin (with former Vikings star Alan Page recusing himself) that the two acted within the permissible bounds of “discretion” in their handling of the incident in Mankato and fell short of the “gross negligence” required to overcome the meager benefits recoverable under the workers compensation law and sue for what could have been millions of dollars in a wrongful death civil lawsuit.

The case, adhering to conventional legal principles, is often cited and relied upon as precedent by Minnesota courts in adjudicating cases at the intersection of workers compensation and civil personal injury cases arising in the workplace.

Now, 20 years after his untimely passing, Stringer’s legacy lives on as the Vikings are about to start their 61st season in the NFL.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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