“Explainer: How ‘Insider’ Access Made San Francisco Chronicle and Berkeley J-School Miss Real Story Behind Death of Cal Football’s Ted Agu,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=10931
Complete headline links to our Ted Agu series:
Installments to date in THE TED AGU PAPERS:
by Irvin Muchnick
The petition of the faculty association at the University of California-Berkeley did not directly ask Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to fire football coach Sonny Dykes’ strength and conditioning assistant Damon Harrington — only to hold up Harrington’s contract renewal until a new-and-improved “independent” investigation could be conducted. Now neither has happened: Cal said Friday that Harrington’s $150,000-plus-bonuses deal had been rolled over through June 2017.
While every storyteller loves a good villain, Harrington’s job status, per se, was never the central philosophical concern of Concussion Inc. We are more interested in the cover-ups of this pedestrian football industry figure’s particular brand of death-inducing physical fitness, by the Cal athletic department and by the Dirks administration to which the department reports.
For those of you just tuning in:
* On November 1, 2013, offensive lineman J.D. Hinnant beat the snot out of then non-traveling-team mate, running back Fabiano Hale. The day before, Hale had skipped a workout. Harrington responded by punishing the players who were present with an extra set of puke drills. Channeling the Jack Nicholson character in the movie A Few Good Men, Harrington proceeded to issue a “code red,” telling the young athletes under his thumb to administer justice to Hale “by any means necessary,” according to a player present, and punctuating the message by slamming his fist into his other hand. Taking the coach at his word, Hinnant sucker-punched Hale into the Alta Bates Medical Center emergency room with a concussion. Hinnant then suited up for the real important business that day: the game against Arizona.
* The Chronicle and other major media fumbled the story of the Hinnant assault or lateraled it off the radar — choose your own pigskin metaphor. By mid-November 2013 this reporter was on to this tale of football fatwa. I not only wrote about it; I also pushed it to editors and writers for the Chronicle, whose responses can be paraphrased thusly: “Off the record … how interesting … this isn’t for publication or distribution … this didn’t come from me … please, please don’t drag my name into this or tell anyone we talked with you … thanks.” To this day, the Chronicle has published the name and photograph of Hale, but not those of Hinnant. For 31 months, the newspaper’s coverage didn’t even acknowledge that the key controversy of the incident was not a dispute between two teenage student-athletes whose year-to-year scholarships are entirely at the whim of Harrington’s boss, Dykes, but rather the role of Harrington in explicitly or implicitly inciting criminal off-field violence.
* On February 7, 2014, another football player, Ted Agu, collapsed and died. The university duped everyone — myself included — by putting out the story that this was from a random heart attack during an informal campus jog with his buddies. It turned out that Agu was participating, along with the full squad, in a mandatory-voluntary offseason “toughness” drill custom-designed by coach Harrington. (Agu himself was a non-scholarship walk-on team member who, like the scholarship guys, had signed a winter workout “contract” with Harrington, whose full four-page content the Cal athletic department now claims cannot be found in its files.) Additionally, Agu collapsed multiple times during this hillside rope-pulling run, with no athletic training staff intervention, even though the team was aware that he was a carrier of sickle cell disease trait. The university also concealed the sickle cell aspect from investigators for the Alameda County coroner — who later, in an almost unprecedented move spurred by discovery in the Agu family’s civil lawsuit against the university, would amend the original generic-coronary finding of cause of death.
* In March 2014 football player Joey Mahalic went to Berkeley campus police, who were the first level of the authorities’ investigation of the Agu death, regarding Harrington’s incitement of Hinnant in the Hale assault four months earlier. The cops did not forward the information to the Alameda County district attorney. Indeed, depositions in the Agu civil case, combined with statements by county officials, strongly suggest that the police “supplemental” report of Mahalic’s testimony was among the 112 of 141 pages the university never forwarded to the county sheriff, whose office oversees the coroner.
The slow dribbling out of the full Damon Harrington story is an uninspiring case study of the contemporary news media’s inattention to its mission, as well of the general public’s indifference to the excesses and crimes of the football industry and football culture.
In January 2016 the San Francisco Chronicle published its sole extended front-page narrative article on Agu’s death — for its least-read Saturday edition. The story focused on the university’s admission of civil liability in what would become a $4.75 million settlement with the family. The story said nothing about Joey Mahalic’s explosive account of Harrington’s role in Hinnant’s beating of Hale; indeed, the story did not mention the incident.
The Chronicle advertised its story as being based largely on Agu lawsuit deposition transcripts, which had been obtained through the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, directed by the legendary journalist Lowell Bergman. However, in an email exchange with me, Bergman did not defend the newspaper from Concussion Inc.’s criticism of the newspaper’s incomplete Harrington coverage. Bergman also rebuffed my request for his program to publish in full the deposition transcripts in its possession.
In April, Concussion Inc. independently acquired and began reporting on what appears to be the very same set of deposition transcripts. They are the heart of “The Ted Agu Papers,” which we plan to publish at the start of the football season as an ebook to benefit sickle cell research and education.
Reference to the Mahalic police statement is all over the depositions. So are general concerns about the direction of the football strength and conditioning program under Harrington.
The office of Nancy O’Malley, the county district attorney, at first told us that it knew nothing about a report by the UC Police Department of Mahalic’s whistleblowing, and said it was up to the campus cops to forward it. The campus police chief said she would not do so because, as a lieutenant had told me earlier, disposition of the Hinnant-Hale incident was “over and done with.” (Shortly before the Agu death, the district attorney had “deferred” prosecution of Hinnant, with no mention of Harrington.)
Recently, however, the district attorney’s people told us that they decided to ask the campus cops for the full files on Hinnant-Hale as well as on Agu. After reviewing them, prosecutors said there were no grounds to charge Harrington.
In the face of the petition by faculty critics of Cal athletics, Chancellor Dirks went a good bit further: he said authorities long ago found that Harrington had done “nothing wrong.” Dirks didn’t stand in the way of renewal of Harrington’s $150,000-a-year contract. The chancellor did promise a second internal administrative review of the strength and conditioning program. The first one, in 2014, was by Dr. Jeffrey Tanji of UC Davis, a mentor of Cal football head team physician Dr. Casey Batten — whom Agu case deposition testimony unmistakably fingers as having concealed from the county medical examiner known information about the fact that Agu was a sickle cell carrier, and generally as having lobbied for the original and ultimately discredited finding of Agu’s cause of death.
The district attorney refuses to release the Mahalic police statement. Though I have not heard back directly from the university’s California Public Records Act (CPRA) department, Chancellor Dirks’ media spokesperson, Dan Mogulof, told me that my request for the statement was being denied on the grounds of a statutory exemption of police records.
Concurrently, I have long had in the CPRA request pipeline — with both the Berkeley and UC campuses — an application for internal emails and other documents pertaining to Tanji’s review of Harrington. The university has released to the media the Tanji report itself, but not the surrounding documents: the commissioning of and instructions to Tanji prior to the production of the report, and the communications reflecting how the report got processed by Berkeley administrators.
UC has not yet fully responded to my request for the Tanji materials, but in preliminary responses, seems to have acknowledged that such materials exist and that there will be a disposition around July 12. That is the day after tomorrow.
If I do not legally acquire the Mahalic statement by other means, then I will surely sue for it. If the University of California also withholds or unreasonably sanitizes the Tanji documents, then I will add those to my action in state court.
The public has a compelling interest in finding out exactly how Damon Harrington came to be “exonerated” for his part in the criminal beating of one of the athletes in his charge, and the negligent homicide of another.