February 17, 2003

The stunning death of Baltimore Oriole rookie Steve Bechler has once again raised the issue of whether sports teams adequately monitor heatstroke. Bechler is the third athlete in two years to die of heatstroke: Corey Stringer and Rashidi Wheeler, two football players, died in 2000 following lengthy practices. As with Stringer and Wheeler, Bechler was seriously overweight, and the use of the weight-loss drug ephedrine is suspected as having been a contributing factor. He was 23 years old.

Obesity seems to be a distinguishing characteristic of the modern athlete. As Sports Illustrated noted several weeks ago, Warren Sapp has become a role model for other football linemen, weighing in at a not-so-slender 303 lbs (the Raider he bested in the Super Bowl, Frank Middleton, tips the scales at an even more corpulent 360 lbs !) On the other hand, Mo Vaughn has seen a certain Hall of Fame career go into the proverbial toilet as his weight has ballooned, and the Lakers' chances of winning a fourth straight title were shattered when Shaq was unable to get himself into shape at the start of the season.

Fat athletes usually are the subject of good-natured ridicule; George Foreman has practically built a second career out of his love for food. Not too long ago, the LA Clippers had two 300 pound centers, Stanley Roberts and John "Hot Plate" Williams, neither of whom could last more than five minutes out on the court. Local basketball fans always got a good laugh out of that, ignoring the fact that both men were taking severe health risks by playing an arduous sport while out of shape. It may take the death of a young athlete to force teams to view this problem more seriously.

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