Explainer: How ‘Insider’ Access Made San Francisco Chronicle and Berkeley J-School Miss Real Story Behind Death of Cal Football’s Ted Agu

Published April 10th, 2016, Uncategorized

Complete headline links to our series: http://concussioninc.net/?p=10877

 

 

by Irvin Muchnick

 

 

 

BACKGROUND

On February 7, 2014, Ted Agu, a 21-year-old walk-on defensive lineman for the Cal Bears, collapsed and died during an offseason campus run and conditioning drill. The coroner ruled as the cause of death hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a heart muscle malady that brought on cardiac arrest.

In August of that year, the Agu family sued the university in state court. Early this year, Cal conceded liability, and the parties began hammering out a settlement.

A side controversy concerns Concussion Inc.’s contention that the San Francisco Chronicle’s January 30, 2016, article, on the university’s liability concession, was a seriously incomplete, self-censored treatment of known facts surrounding the Agu death.

Specifically, we speculate that in the depositions in the newspaper’s possession, via the Investigative Reporting Program of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, attorneys for the plaintiff Agu family must have sought also to explore football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington’s role in an incident three months earlier: a fight between players that left one of them knocked unconscious and taken to the emergency room. Concussion Inc. is the only outlet that has reported in any depth on the J.D. Hinnant-Fabiano Hale episode, which establishes a pattern of recklessness on the part of Harrington and his employer Cal.

If the Chronicle did willfully skirt this history, then the next question becomes whether the newspaper did so in accord with the wishes of the sources of the deposition transcripts — who almost certainly were the plaintiffs’ attorneys. In turn, this intensifies the need to study whether the Agu settlement will have any provisions of prospective public significance, or was designed only to compensate the family for Ted’s wrongful death.

 

PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE DEPOSITIONS

Of course, the raw deposition transcripts may or may not tell a more critical and effective story than the newspaper’s cherry-picking front-page account.

In order to find out, I have been seeking access to them. Sources close to the lawsuit settlement have given me informal assurances that the depositions will be publicly accessible as soon as the settlement is finalized and announced. Should that prove not to come to fruition, there are legal options for attempting to daylight the transcripts, which promise an indispensable window into the factors behind this public institution’s decision to settle a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

According to a university spokesperson, the Board of Regents will consider the Agu settlement as an interim item, some time prior to the next scheduled board meeting in Sacramento, May 11-12. There then will be an announcement. Cal-Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof says the settlement agreement will have “no secret terms.”


OTHER INFORMATION

Will the “non-economic” provisions of the settlement have teeth? So far there are no hints that would have us believe so. Harrington, whose off-the-field methods are under fire — linking to both the Hale concussion and the Agu death — appears to remain on staff. At the team website, head coach Sonny Dykes (who himself was recently rewarded with a contract extension and a raise) calls Harrington one of the best at his job in all of college football. Senior running back Daniel Lasco is quoted calling Harrington “the backbone of this team.”

The Cal athletic department declined a request to disclose Harrington’s salary. Through the California Public Records Act (PRA), I filed a request for this information with the chancellor’s office.

Last year the Dallas Morning News surveyed all assistant football coaches’ salaries in two major college conferences, the SEC and the Big 12. (Cal is in the Pac 12.) The lowest head strength and conditioning coach salary was $99,100, and that was for someone with far fewer than Harrington’s 16 years in the industry. A more recent report by Darren Rovell, ESPN’s business specialist, found that the highest-paid football strength coach in the country, Chris Doyle of Iowa, makes $515,000, and the eighth-ranked, Tommy Moffitt of LSU, pulls in $315,000. As group, Dykes’ assistant coaching staff is believed to be in the middle of the compensation pack among the more than 100 Division I programs.

[Update April 12: Harrington’s salary is $150,000. He also got an $8,000 bowl bonus last year. http://concussioninc.net/?p=10935.]

Following the Agu tragedy, campus sources say, Cal commissioned an internal review of Harrington’s program. Last Thursday I filed with the chancellor’s office a PRA request for this document and all related ones — including emails between university officials, which likewise are public records. The university has 10 days to respond, a bit more to comply.

If the Harrington review is closely related to Agu settlement terms — or to anything that the public records compliance bureaucracy might be able to argue is a personnel matter — then I wouldn’t be surprised to see my PRA requests stalled for a couple of weeks. But one way or another, the whole picture should become sharper in about a month.

 

LOWELL BERGMAN GETS TESTY

Lowell Bergman, the legendary print and broadcast figure who directs the Cal journalism school’s Investigative Reporting Program, was confronted with the discrepancies in the Chronicle’s story. He didn’t defend it; he merely said that all his program did was share the depositions in its possession, as well as other information, with the newspaper’s reporters and editors.

In an email last Friday, Bergman complained that the mention the day before in Concussion Inc.’s story “of my late brother disqualifies you as a reporter operating in the public interest.”

Nonsense, I replied.

My reference to the Rudy Giuliani-connected and WWE-fixing Martin Bergman — explicitly labeled “another story” — was part of this site’s routine circling back to archival material. The Marty story, from our real-time coverage of the Trump-like 2010 U.S. Senate bid by Linda McMahon, wife of WWE chief Vince McMahon, was among the scores of articles credited by many Connecticut observers (Frank Deford among them) with helping Richard Blumenthal defeat her in that Senate election. (I was not aware that Martin Bergman had died in 2008 at age 64 — a fact of no relevance in this context — and I expressed condolences to Lowell Bergman.)

In any case, I told Lowell Bergman, “Public interest is in the eye of the beholder; you are not its arbiter.”

Evidently taking cues from their petulant and uncommunicative boss, the journalism program’s managing editor Tim McGirk and senior reporter/lecturer Abbie Van Sickle also have refused to comment on our exposure of the obvious shortcomings of the Chronicle/Cal J-school article.

I asked McGirk and Van Sickle: “What do you teach your students who uncover institutional malfeasance? That they should drop the story when accountable parties don’t reply to legitimate questions?”

 

CONCLUSION

The mainstream coverage of Ted Agu’s death is a classic case of “insider” news outlets snookered and neutered by access. In combination, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley journalism school’s Investigative Reporting Program told only the relatively tame half of the full story of what is happening in the football program at the state’s flagship public university — where a young athlete added to an ongoing national death toll that is as understated as it is needless.

The losers in all this are the people of California.