by Irvin Muchnick
The extreme motivational methods of University of California football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington — highlighted in Concussion Inc.’s coverage of a 2013 locker room altercation that sent a freshman running back to the emergency room with a concussion — are also at the center of the apparent imminent settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of Ted Agu, who died months later in a conditioning drill.
Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that the university has admitted liability to the Agu family in the 21-year-old’s fatal collapse, during a campus run as part of an offseason workout. See http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/UC-admits-liability-in-2014-death-of-Cal-football-6794170.php.
The Chronicle report of Cal-Berkeley’s position in the Agu lawsuit is a likely precursor to a monetary settlement of at least seven figures.
For our purposes, the key passage is this:
“… Head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington devised the new drill to try ‘something new, exciting, fresh, kind of keep the guys engaged,’ according to his deposition.
The workout involved groups of players grabbing a heavy rope together, running to a steep street nearby and charging up and down the incline 10 times.
Head coach Sonny Dykes, who worked with Harrington at Louisiana Tech, had recruited him to join the Cal program a year before. Many players contrasted Harrington’s workouts with those of his predecessor, who focused more on skills and agility.
‘His are a whole different type of workout,’ former defensive end Sione Sina said in a deposition, referring to Harrington’s workouts. ‘His are like some down South mental toughness. … It’s like, we got to push you to your edge and see if you can go even further.’
Neither Harrington nor Dykes responded to requests for comment.”
As we reported at the time, Harrington’s shaming of a player who had missed a voluntary conditioning session, and his collective punishment of those who did show up, were behind the November 1, 2013, locker room attack on Fabiano Hale by J.D. Hinnant. Following an investigation, the Alameda County district attorney put Hinnant on a form of informal pre-judicial probation, with the record of the incident ultimately expunged for good behavior.
Below is the full text of our wrap-up of the Hinnant-Hale-Harrington affair, followed by links to the entire seven-part series from November 25, 2013, through April 17, 2014.
What remains to be seen — and we’ll be working on this aspect of the story — is whether Harrington’s alleged role in Hinnant’s beating of Hale has come up in the discovery of the Agu suit.
Published April 5th, 2014
by Irvin Muchnick
As the headline reveals, I’m beginning this overdue wrap-up of the November 1, 2013, Cal football player-on-player attack by identifying the person who appears to have been the subject of the investigation by the Alameda County district attorney: J.D. Hinnant, an offensive lineman from Fountain Valley, California.
In doing so, I’m not trying to humiliate the young man. But the local prosecutor, while “deferring” charges in what amounts to a form of pre-trial probation, confirmed that something bad, something criminal, happened. I wish all those involved in the incident best wishes in moving past it. I also believe that naming Hinnant is fundamental to the accountability sought by the D.A.
The victim of the assault, Fabiano Hale, already has been named here and elsewhere – which means that he carries the demented football-culture burden of proving he’s not a “pussy” for having gotten sucker-punched and sent to the emergency room of Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital with a concussion. And even worse, for having a nosy journalist invoke him and this episode, in which Hale was an innocent bystander, in a larger critique of how his blood sport is being executed these days at the flagship public university of the nation’s most populous state.
I’ve tried without success to contact Hinnant. The university administration and the prosecutor’s office wouldn’t confirm the name, but one would think they’d have told me I had the wrong one over the course of the several times they were directly asked.
Though neither Hinnant nor Hale was ever the point of this exercise, that piece of business is out of the way.
This article was scheduled for publication more than a month ago, before a reader warned me that it would collide with a memorial service for Ted Agu, the football player who, earlier in February, had collapsed and died while jogging on campus – a tragedy with no connection to the scandalous state of Cal athletics. Unaware of this last round of Agu mourning rituals, I agreed that family and friends and the football community should be allowed to conduct it in peace. It was bad enough that Arkansas coach Bret Bielema incoherently cited Agu’s death, from an undetected congenital condition that had nothing to do with football, in advocating a proposed rule change to curtail no-huddle offenses.
Days earlier, I’d had an extended conversation with Paul Hora, the assistant district attorney who made the call to defer prosecution. I was impressed by Hora’s nuanced approach to his decision.
Our discussion focused on two things. First, Hora noted that prosecutorial discretion involved looking at “the nature of the offense and of the offender.” By this, Hora meant both a sense of proportion in contemplating legal repercussions for a possible one-off lapse in judgment, and an appreciation of the perpetrator’s overall citizenship and remorse. On both scores, the D.A.’s office felt that a just resolution would be to hold off on charges and to monitor the miscreant’s ongoing behavior. Hora emphasized that this was an interim resolution, subject to later introduction of charges if the offender’s behavior warranted it. Fair enough.
The other part of our discussion was trickier, but to his credit, Hora didn’t flinch from it. He listened to the position that the culpability for what happened in the Cal locker room went higher up the chain, to coaches and administrators. Though not part of a criminal prosecutor’s jurisdiction per se, the scrutiny of misdeeds inside public institutions calls for broader examination of management, even as it shows mercy toward individuals.
Our reporting raised serious questions regarding the role of Cal strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington in lighting the fuse for the attack on Hale, who had missed a group weightlifting session. The coach meted out extra work to the others present, and suggested, in so many words, that they should vent any complaints over the punishment with their absent teammate.
This dynamic betrayed a sick locker room culture: authority figures orchestrating the collective misery of 18-to-22-year-olds programmed for violence at the behest of the adults in control of their careers. When this sort of thing happens in a professional locker room, such as the Miami Dolphins’, we tend to shrug, because the guys are older and are being paid. When it happens in the college football program with, it turns out, the worst statistics in the nation at graduating “revenue sport student-athletes,” a different and sterner response is in order.
And really, it’s time to talk about the practice of round-the-clock booking of college football players. On pain of retraction of year-to-year scholarships, they are at the coaches’ beck and call not just for games on Saturday afternoon (or, it seems just as often, Saturday night or Thursday or Friday, depending on the convenience of television rights-holders), but also for position-group meetings, side conditioning, game film review. Let’s not forget that they also sacrifice personal time for treatment of injuries.
Every bit as pernicious as the (non)-division of the money – billions for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its members, millions for the coaches, bubkes for the performers – is the stripping of dignity and autonomy. “Voluntary” time commitment, which isn’t voluntary at all, doubles and triples the official workloads spelled out by the NCAA’s rulebook, which is as mendacious as it is thick.
Teams have strength and conditioning coaches in part because college football is an arms race. But much of the underlying purpose of strength coaches is unspoken: they’re yet another way to keep the kids busy. If the players are always thinking about how to become better jocks, then they might not have as much time to ponder the egregious exploitation of their bodies and lives.
These are “non-economic” issues that should be addressed when Ramogi Huma’s College Athletes Players Association eventually takes hold, on the strength of the National Labor Relations Board ruling in favor of the athletes organizing at Northwestern University (and, soon, elsewhere).
Getting back to assistant district attorney Hora, he called my speculation about the possible incitement of Hinnant against Hale a “scenario out of A Few Good Men.” That was Rob Reiner’s 1992 movie, from the Alan Sorkin play, about “code red” extrajudicial punishment in the military.
“I had no evidence of a ‘code red’ here,” Hora said. “That would be a very difficult thing to prove.”
I can’t argue with that. Still, dissatisfaction with Cal athletics under director Sandy Barbour is widespread; among the emails urging me to probe the newly warped values of this intercollegiate sports program were from a retired top university administrator. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killon has pointed out, the current news is Barbour’s hire of the DHR International executive headhunting firm to coordinate a nationwide search for retiring basketball coach Mike Montgomery’s successor.
There’s speculation about Barbour’s job security, Killon wrote, “and she may want to make a splashy hire.”
Irvin Muchnick’s book, Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It, will be published this summer by ECW Press. Here are the major headline links to ConcussionInc.net’s coverage of theCal football incident:
Published November 25th, 2013
Published November 27th, 2013
Published December 2nd, 2013
Published December 4th, 2013
Published January 31st, 2014
Published April 5th, 2014
Published April 17th, 2014