Public Information Principle Is at Stake in the University of California-Ted Agu Family Wrongful Death Settlement

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Complete headline links to our series on the wrongful death lawsuit by the family of Cal football’s Ted Agu:



by Irvin Muchnick


In the University of California settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit of football player Ted Agu, money is about to change hands for the purpose of bringing a measure of cold comfort to the bereaved family. There is nothing wrong with that.

In response to Concussion Inc.’s coverage, attorneys on both sides today together contacted me with what information is available at this point. Matt Conant, for the university, and Jeff Murphy, for the family, confirmed that a settlement is at hand, awaiting only approval by the UC Board of Regents. The attorneys had no details on the Regents’ timeline or procedures.

I’ve asked university spokespeople about those. The next Regents meeting is in May in Sacramento. Settlement of litigation appears to pass ordinarily through the Finance Committee (whose ex officio members include Governor Jerry Brown). Approval is likely a formality. It will be followed by a public announcement, including the main points of the settlement if not release of the settlement agreement itself.

In my view, the thornier remaining questions will involve the background of the decision to part with some millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, and most important, not to exercise accountability for responsible state employees and officials in an eminently preventable tragedy. There is no indication that, except for cutting a large institutional check, anyone will be paying a price. The snuffed life of Ted Agu is nothing more than a broken egg in a fatal omelette.

Concussion Inc. has reported on the inhumane and insane methods of Damon Harrington, the football strength and conditioning coach, who was brought to Cal from Louisiana Tech by head coach Sonny Dykes. Before reviewing things below, let me say that Harrington is in no way an outlier in college football today — we’ll be publishing an article about this shortly. Many, many bloated Division I college football coaching staffs include wacko pseudo-motivational figures just like Harrington, whose playbook seems to be an overdose of drill sergeant fantasies, Navy Seals movies, and the manuals of so-called fitness cults such as CrossFit. The reasons these characters thrive include the goals of filling up the schedules of “student-athletes,” for whom attending class is an afterthought or an accident; keeping them out of trouble on and off campus; and maybe most important, preventing them from thinking too much about how their unpaid labor, as sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, translates into billions for their institutions and millions for their kindly mentors.

The real question is whether such a role and such a culture are consonant with the values of the University of California-Berkeley. Or whether, as I’ve said, Football America truly and definitively has joined red and blue states at the hip, in warfare against public health.

The story of how all this relates to Agu starts in late January of this year, when the San Francisco Chronicle and others reported that Cal was conceding liability in Agu’s February 2014 death. The first problem here is the Chronicle went into no depth on how the Cal football concession was part of a legal strategy to slam the door on further discovery pertaining to damages and aggravating circumstances. It was a way to cut to the chase, which might have served the plaintiff family without getting to the heart of the conditions in the football program giving rise to this borderline-criminal episode.

A clue to the newspaper’s once-over-lightly scrutiny was its failure to explore the connection between the Agu death and the fight between two other players just three months earlier that had sent one of them to the Alta Bates Hospital emergency room with a concussion. That altercation — a one-way sucker punch, really — had at the center the same figure: strength and conditioning coach Harrington. He was the staffer who directed the fatal Agu exercise. He also arguably incited J.D. Hinnant’s punch-out of Fabiano Hale, after the latter skipped a weightlifting session and Harrington punished the whole group for Hale’s absence — adding that they could take up their complaints directly with him.

We don’t know if the Chronicle’s investigative team missed this relevant detail because they didn’t come across it in leaked court records, or if they were simply following a script outlined by the Southern California law firm of Brian Panish, who represent the Agu family. But from where I sit, it sure looks like a pulled punch.

Once the settlement is finalized, what means will the public have to get more out of a thin narrative we deserve to have filled out? The answer is that we will have no recourse, if the settlement announcement is not accompanied by background materials. Perhaps the most notable of these are the deposition transcripts of Cal officials.

Gaining access to them shapes up as an important fight in future-of-football journalism. Cal is eager to turn the page on Agu — but there is a lot more than one page left to turn.


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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick