It is the nature of life that some things do not lend themselves to easy answers or perfectly happy endings, which is certainly true of the curious case of Gavin Class.
Class is the Towson football player who nearly died after suffering massive internal damage from heatstroke and is now suing to force the university to let him make a storybook return to the Tigers roster.
By all accounts, he's a great kid who has overcome tremendous odds to even make a legal argument for reinstatement, but Towson's medical staff has refused to clear him to play because of concerns that he would be vulnerable to further injury.
So, of course, the school has to play the villain here, defending that decision against a student-athlete who spent nine days in an induced coma and had to undergo a liver transplant to merely survive, much less play another day of college football. The college and the kid are staring each other down on opposite sides of a mountain of legal briefs and it's sad that it has to be this way, because there are no villains here.
Class was featured in a story in The Baltimore Sun earlier this month in which he explained why he wants to recover a year of eligibility and complete his recovery by playing college football. He has gotten clearance from his own doctors, but the football program's medical team has steadfastly refused to let him back on the field.
The situation is more complicated than just the matter of whether he's ready to play and can do so without a higher level of risk to his long-term health than his teammates. His lawyers and doctors insist he can. Towson disagrees and the athletic department has taken this stand to protect its "return to play" policy, which leaves the decision on who is physically eligible exclusively to its medical staff.
There's also the obvious question of whether Class still is capable of competing at the Football Championship Subdivision level after what he has been through, and whether the school should be forced to make the necessary accommodations to assure that his body temperature is monitored carefully throughout all games and practices.
Class' family has stipulated that it would cover any extra expenses and free the university of any liability. But Towson athletic director Tim Leonard said Friday that this case is about more than one inspiring student-athlete.
"Unfortunately, somebody has to be the bearer of news that we don't want to hear, but I think we have a very fair return-to-play policy,'' Leonard said. "That is, it's going to be dictated by those who are empowered to make that decision, and that is our medical team — not our coaches, not the parents, not the student-athletes themselves, certainly not me, but it's by our team doctors. That's why we're so adamant about this."
Both sides have high-profile doctors pleading their case. Class has been tested at the Korey Stringer Institute by highly respected kinesiologist Dr. Douglas Casa, who has testified on his behalf during the series of hearings that have led to a pending decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that could come this week. The doctor who implanted Class' new liver at the University of Maryland Medical Center also testified in his favor.
Towson uses the same medical consultants as the Ravens, and the doctors at MedStar Health obviously disagreed. They released a statement this week when approached by ESPN for comment for an "Outside the Lines" piece on the Class case that is scheduled to air Sunday night.
"MedStar Health is committed to providing the highest standard of care to all of our patients," the statement read. "Notably, the medical opinion rendered by Dr. Kari Kindschi in the Gavin Class case was fully supported by a number of highly experienced and respected physicians from multiple disciplines. They include four of the region's top sports medicine experts from the MedStar Health System, as well as from outside the system. MedStar Health stands by the unanimous decision made unequivocally in the best interest of the patient."
Perhaps in a perfect world, the university would give Class a uniform and a locker and let him stand on the sidelines for every game until an opportunity arose for a "Rudy" moment. Even one of Class' lawyers, Andrew Dansicker, concedes that the likelihood of Class actually playing for Towson this year — even if the Fourth Circuit reinstates him — is questionable because of the length of the ongoing legal battle.
"The reality is that it's going to be very difficult for him to be an active player on the field during the games if he joins the team this late," Dansicker said Friday. "But, you know, he would still be very pleased just to have him on the team, practicing with the team, even if he doesn't start … even if he doesn't play in the games."
Towson has not turned its back on Class. The football team has included him in non-competitive team activities throughout his comeback, and Leonard and the Tigers coaching staff speak highly of his commitment to rejoining the team as an active player. They just refuse to overrule their doctors and it isn't hard to understand why.
The reason there is a Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut is Stringer died from complications associated with exertional heatstroke preparing for the 2001 season at the Minnesota Vikings training camp.
If you want an example closer to home, Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died under similar circumstances after falling victim to a catastrophic heatstroke at the team's spring training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2003, which led to a decision by the FDA to ban ephedra-based weight loss supplements in the United States.
Dansicker said Class would not face a higher risk of another heatstroke incident and cites the testing done at the Stringer Institute as well as testimony by Casa.
"Dr. Casa at the Korey Stringer Institute, who even the Towson team doctor admitted that he is one of the top experts in the country on heatstroke among athletes, testified that Gavin would be the safest player on the field if he was allowed to play, because he would be the only player on the field to have his temperature checked every 5-10 minutes," Dansicker said. "It takes about 40 to 50 minutes for a player's temperature to get to the point where you have a problem. It doesn't happen instantaneously.
"… There is no concern about his safety. We're past the point of 90-degree temperatures anyway, so it's almost a moot point anyway."
Leonard knows that his personal opinion on the subject isn't relevant to the legal case, but he doesn't think a few plays on a football field are worth any risk to a kid who has come so close to having all of his dreams denied.
"These are young people who have their whole lives in front of them, and football is a very physical sport where injuries happen and happen a lot and you don't want something to happen that is going to affect them for the rest of their lives," Leonard said. "There's more to life than playing football."
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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.