Stringer's family pushes on

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
You might be surprised to know that nearly 7 1/2 years after his death, Korey Stringer's family is still fighting a legal battle with no end in sight.

Nevertheless, an important milestone occurred Monday when the NFL settled its portion of the family's lawsuit and agreed to support the creation of a heat illness prevention program for athletes of all ages. While there has indisputably been a financial element of the long-standing litigation, Stringer's widow has always maintained that her primary goal was to enact permanent change on the way organized sports deals with excessive temperatures.

Stringer died on Aug. 1, 2001 from complications of heat stroke after two hot and humid days in Minnesota's training camp. Kelci Stringer, his widow, has sued the Vikings, their medical staff, the NFL and even the makers of his shoulder pads and helmet in the ensuing years. All but a federal lawsuit against equipment manager Riddell Inc. have now either been settled or thrown out of court.

There has long been an undercurrent of ephdera use in connection with Korey Stringer's death. Team officials found bottles of several supplements that contained the since-banned ingredient, but no tests conclusively proved that Stringer had ephedra in his system at the time of death. Independent of that element, Kelci Stringer believes there was a series of missed signs and mistakes that contributed to the tragedy.

I visited Kelci and her son, Kodie, at their Atlanta home a few years ago and the phrase she kept using was this: "Somebody dropped the ball." She didn't believe that anyone had intentionally caused harm to her husband, but as she learned more about heat illness, she grew convinced that his death was preventable. She doubted whether she would see anywhere close to the figures thrown around by her attorneys -- whose initial lawsuit asked the Vikings for more than $100 million -- and professed not to care.

Instead, she considered the lawsuits a legal way to pressure sports leagues to adopt stricter heat standards and ditch their old-school approaches to practicing and playing in heat. In that context, Monday's news is as important a victory as she has gained over the years: The nation's most successful sports league will support that effort.

Stringer's legal fight is also bringing to light important studies on ways that football padding can contribute to heat illness. Check out this study by a professor at the University of Connecticut, who determined that athletes wearing standard 2001 helmets and shoulder pads experienced core temperature increases three times faster than those who did not wear them during similar activities.

Whether or not anyone was legally responsible for Stringer's death, this series of lawsuits has at least kept the pressure on the NFL and its suppliers to re-examine and improve their practices. Monday's news was a small victory in that endeavor.