by Irvin Muchnick
Concussion Inc. just exclusively reported that the parties in Agu v. Regents of the University of California have filed notice of “conditional” settlement of the multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit by the family of dead football player Ted Agu. For the full background, see the links to our coverage in the following post.
In January, Cal admitted liability. The only thing remaining in Alameda County Superior Court would appear to be finding out how many zeros are at the end of the check my state university will have to write to pretend to make all this go away.
All sympathy is due the Agu family. Burying a child is an unimaginable horror, and the meager comfort and closure from even a slam-dunk lawsuit victory can’t begin to compensate.
But what also needs to be emphasized at this moment is that, while private litigation can redress private grievances, it can’t make public policy. Now that the lawsuit is on the cusp of settlement, there are nearly 40 million other Californians with a direct interest in both the “monetary” and “non-monetary” relief the Agus will receive.
On the economic side, the entire University of California at Berkeley campus is facing an historic budget deficit — a condition hardly helped by the white elephant that is the recent expensive Memorial Stadium retrofit.
On the non-economic side, there is that small matter of accountability for the individuals who directed the negligence that drove a young man to needless death. On my own score sheet, these are football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, an “educator” with a documented pre-Agu pattern of irresponsible use of his authority; and his boss, head coach Sonny Dykes.
I don’t expect Dykes, who just finished manipulating Cal into a raise in return for running this mediocre program, to have enough honor to resign. So I suggest that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks dismiss both Dykes and Harrington. Without delay.
The head athletic trainer at the time of the Agu incident, Robert Jackson, is already out the door. Jackson now finds himself within intimate flow-chart proximity of the deaths of two student-athletes. The first was Ereck Plancher at the University of Central Florida. Like Agu, Plancher had sickle cell trait. Like Agu, Plancher collapsed during a “voluntary” offseason workout, in March 2008. A jury awarded the Plancher family $10 million — a round figure that likely was a starting point in a Cal settlement that should be announced at several ticks higher.
Such is the state of college football that we can reliably mark down a few of these events a decade. They are like astronomical events. We no longer even blink.
But for me, Ted Agu was a nightmarish flashback to the death of Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler, who fell in the midst of an equally insane set of running drills in the August 2001 heat just outside Chicago.
In a cruel twist on cinema verite, that one was captured on a videotape produced by the Northwestern assistant coaches. It seems that head coach Randy Walker, who was not allowed to attend the sprint drills because of convoluted National Collegiate Athletic Association regulations, had ordered that records be kept of exactly who did and didn’t show up for this “voluntary” exercise.
I obtained a copy of and viewed this macabre mise en scene: teammates, on break between their own never-halted sprints, kneeling in prayer in front of the oxygen-starved Wheeler, while it took well over 10 minutes to summon the futile ambulance. In the lawsuit, Wheeler’s mother would be represented by the late Johnny Cochran. This was truly the “Rodney King video of sports.”
Though I was never able to sell the book proposal I tried to develop from this material, the Los Angeles Times Magazine did eventually ask me to write one of the early articles of the contemporary crop deploring a college athletic system that shares none of its billions of dollars of revenue with the players. (See “Welcome to Plantation Football,” August 31, 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/aug/31/magazine/tm-athletes35.)
In the meantime, an Illinois judge had forced Northwestern’s eight-figure settlement offer down Linda Will’s throat. She didn’t want a settlement. She wanted her day in court on her own “non-economic demand”: the sacking of Randy Walker. But Walker kept his job. In 2006, he had a heart attack and died himself.