This is the introduction to Concussion Inc.’s seventh ebook, THE TED AGU PAPERS: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football. The ebook is now available for $9.99 at http://amzn.to/2aA2LDl. One hundred percent of the royalties go toward sickle cell disease trait research and education.
EVEN THOUGH TED AGU HIMSELF wouldn’t become a fatality of football mania until February 7, 2014, the genesis of this volume dates back either five or 15 years, depending on how you keep score.
The five-year marker would be from the time I rebranded my website “Concussion Inc.,” which eventually led to the 2015 book of the same title. Ever the culture-crit nerd, I define this high-low concept by the logistical and opinion-making links between the phenomenon of professional wrestling and larger societal themes suggested by it. In my formulation, it adds up to a chronicle of collective nervous breakdown in late-empire America – Edward Gibbon in spandex, as it were, and in real time. By coincidence, this ebook launches during the general election presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
With the 15-year marker, I refer to my failed attempt in 2001 to interest a major book publisher in a full account of the death that year, in the August heat of Evanston, Illinois, of a Northwestern University football player by the name of Rashidi Wheeler. The circumstances had some striking similarities to Agu’s. Wheeler, like Agu, collapsed and perished during a punishing offseason conditioning drill, which the head coach had delegated to assistants – for, you see, this was not an official practice, which would have counted against regulation of time away from the classroom, but rather a voluntary exercise session.
Wheeler had asthma; Agu had sickle cell disease trait. But if there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it is that it doesn’t really matter whether the direct cause of an individual death of a kid who was ill-advisedly pushed into football’s existential excesses was brain trauma, spinal injury, internal organ devastation, asthma, sickle cell, or the common cold. The last time I (and their parents) checked, they were all just as dead.
(The vast majority of these kids, of course, do not die prematurely. Upon exercising their “consent” to play football, some of them from the age of 5, their free will proceeds to translate into Russian roulette with the quality, not the quantity, of the rest of their lives, thanks to systematic and cumulative subconcussive brain damage – which is now plausibly documented, at minimum.)
Youth death and disability by football have become so commonplace as to coarsen our souls. It is a given cost of doing business, complete with the legalisms and actuarials of “risk management.” Yet few recognize this pattern as its own self-inflicted, if soft, form of American jihadism. Nor do we fully appreciate that this is something predictable, indeed something by which you can practically set your watch.
In college football, where scholarships are at the year-to-year whim of coaches on seven- and eight-figure contracts in return for their supervision of “student-athletes,” and where a thick National Collegiate Athletic Association rulebook is enforced only in the most picayune areas, we can project a handful of offseason workout deaths a decade. Each one sparks a new variation on the communal yawn; or perhaps the stray commentary on how some kid – more often than not African-American – “died doing what he loved.”
Meanwhile, the periodic demise of a Navy SEAL in over-the-top training exercises, designed to develop an elite military force to protect national security and freedom, is accompanied by official calls for accountability. Such is the proximity of Alice to the looking glass that is 21st century America.
ONE OF THE TROPES of conventional journalism to which I seem allergic is sentimentality. That said, Ted Agu was a uniquely sympathetic figure. That his story still played out to weepy inside-out football industry-friendly spin in the University of California’s Berkeley – not in Penn State’s Happy Valley or in Baylor’s Waco – illustrates just how far football has come in joining at the hip all ideologies, red and blue state alike, in a war without an exit strategy against sanity and public health.
Rashidi Wheeler was raised by a single mom employed in Southern California’s prison-industrial complex. A videotape surfaced of the sprint drills during which Rashidi died: something of a “Rodney King video” of college football. (The videographers were none other than the assistant coaches, who had been directed to maintain for their absent boss a thorough record of which players chose to jeopardize their standing by skipping this particular “voluntary” session.) The video captured a negligently lazy response to Rashidi’s distress, as well as the callous continuation of the drills while he lay on the sideline, essentially unattended, gasping his final breaths. The mother, Linda Will, hired the late Johnnie Cochran to sue Northwestern.
In Cook County court, the university and its lawyers scorched the earth. Among other things, Northwestern introduced evidence suggesting that Rashidi might have taken ephedra, a popular amphetamine-family performance-enhancing herbal supplement of the time, in turn precipitating cardiac arrest.
In 2005 the judge shoved a $16 million settlement down Linda Will’s throat. Will tearfully protested that she didn’t want the money; she wanted her day in court, or in the alternative an apology from Northwestern accompanied by the sacking of Randy Walker, the head coach. (Walker himself would die suddenly the following year, of a heart attack.)
Ted Agu came from a two-parent home in Bakersfield. He was one of four children of Nigerian immigrants Ambrose and Emilia Agu. At Berkeley, as the deposition testimony of THE TED AGU PAPERS shows, Ted was enormously respected, on and off the field, for his leadership skills, work ethic, and academic diligence. Unlike most of his teammates in the so-called non-travel group, many of them “red-shirted” scholarship athletes projected for playing roles, Agu was a “walk-on” player with little chance of ever sniffing game action. Yet he was often the first in the weight room and the last to leave, and one of the guys most depended on to counsel teammates or organize study halls. He expected to become a doctor.
I have never spoken with anyone from the Agu family, and neither they nor their lawyers participated in the production of this ebook. In a post-lawsuit settlement interview, together with their attorney Steve Yerrid, on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Ambrose and Emilia seemed more confused than angry by the turn of events that took their son. The University of California set up a memorial scholarship fund in Ted’s name, and his photo adorns the football team website.
In the prevailing narrative, the death of Ted Agu was a tragedy – one of those Perfect Storms or Series of Unfortunate Events. The documents below, however, support the case that a more accurate characterization is “institutional crime.” Ted Agu died needlessly and avoidably. It was a clear case of negligent homicide by football worship.
And let’s not use fancy words to dance around the full implications. A more aggressive district attorney than the one now apparently at the helm in Alameda County would come away from a thorough reading of THE TED AGU PAPERS with strong consideration of charges against Damon Harrington for inciting a criminal assault, three months before Agu’s death; and against various university administrators and police personnel for perjury in their sworn statements or for obstruction of justice in their withholding from the county medical examiner knowledge of Agu’s sickle cell condition, and from the sheriff more than 100 pages of investigative reports and supplements.
In his deposition, Ted Agu’s friend and teammate Travellous Cheek put it best. “I don’t think it’s right,” Cheek said. “This is somebody’s son.”
HERE IS A TIMELINE of some of the events relating to the primary-source records below.
December 5, 2012
Sonny Dykes, the head football coach at Louisiana Tech, was named to succeed the recently fired Jeff Tedford at Cal.
Dykes was one of the last major hires of Sandy Barbour, the Cal athletic director. Barbour’s stewardship came under fire for, among other things, a centimillion-dollar retrofit and expansion of Memorial Stadium whose failed business model (oodles and oodles of season-ticket holders), and accompanying decades of debt service, would go on to cripple the general campus budget, including its core world-class education and research programs. There was also the matter of UC Berkeley’s graduation rates for “revenue sport” student-athletes – football and men’s basketball players – hitting rock bottom in the national rankings. (On the basis of this dismal record, Barbour in 2014 would fall upward in the pecking order of the college sports industry – to the athletic directorship at Penn State.)
Dykes’ staff included new strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington and associate athletic trainer Robbie Jackson. Harrington was simply brought along from the staff at Louisiana Tech; he was never even interviewed in Berkeley. Jackson’s background included being one of the responsible on-site personnel of the University of Central Florida in Orlando on March 18, 2008, when football player Ereck Plancher, a carrier of sickle cell disease trait, collapsed and died during an offseason workout under head coach George O’Leary. In 2010 the jury in the Plancher family’s Florida Circuit Court wrongful death civil lawsuit would order the university and its insurance carrier to pay $10 million. (A court appeal later capped the award at $200,000, and the dispute over the size of the award is still being litigated.)
June 1, 2013
Nicholas B. Dirks, a history professor and administrator at Columbia University who had been named chancellor-designate of UC Berkeley the previous November, was permanently installed to succeed the retiring Robert J. Birgeneau. One of Dirks’ first acts was to revamp campus administration so that the department of athletics reported directly to the chancellor.
Dirks’ tenure has been marked by an historic budget crisis, forcing deep cuts in academic programs and layoffs of non-tenured support workers; by campus sexual harassment scandals in both athletics and academics; by allegations of impropriety on the part of the chancellor himself in travel and allocation of perks; and by threats of a Faculty Senate vote of “no confidence” in his leadership.
October 31, 2013
Football strength and conditioning coach Harrington scheduled a workout session for the non-travel group on the eve of a home game against Arizona. Fabiano Hale, a redshirt freshman running back, skipped the session.
As a consequence of Hale’s absence (there recently has been an unconfirmed suggestion that one or two others also had unexcused absences), Harrington ordered an extra set of “collective punishment drills” for the players present. These were torturous drop-and-roll exercises calculated to make the participants vomit, and many did. According to the later testimony of at least two players, the coach said it would be up to Hale’s peers to hold him accountable for the blemish on perfect attendance “by any means necessary.” Harrington punctuated the directive by slamming a fist into his palm.
November 1, 2013
In an incident described as a vigilante ambush, another freshman redshirt, offensive tackle J.D. Hinnant, jumped, punched, and kicked Hale, sending him to the emergency room and an overnight stay at Alta Bates Medical Center with a concussion.
Though later disciplined, Hinnant routinely suited up for the Arizona home game that day.
In media interviews, the campus police under Chief Margo Bennett emphasized both that the Hinnant-Hale incident was an internal team matter and that head coach Sonny Dykes and his staff had no knowledge of it. Officer Harry Bennigson and Lieutenant Marc DeCoulode cautioned journalists that negative publicity could harm the football program.
To this day, while regularly publishing victim Fabiano Hale’s name and photo in connection with the incident, no major news outlet has published the name of perpetrator J.D. Hinnant – on the grounds that no criminal charges were ever filed in the case.
Strength and conditioning coach Harrington asked every player to sign a four-page “Winter Workout Contract.” The document explained a regimen of competition among sub-groups in punishment drills, culminating in an undefined one entitled “Grave digger.”
The Alameda County district attorney’s office concluded its review of campus police reports and consideration of criminal charges in the Hinnant-Hale incident. Prosecutors decided to “defer” charges against Hinnant in light of his remorse and of administrative disciplinary measures by the athletics department and the campus student conduct board.
February 7, 2014
Strength and conditioning coach Harrington called a 5 a.m. workout session. It was built around a competition among subgroups of the team in an exclusively Harrington-conceived, and never-before tested, drill that involved pulling heavy ropes while running ten times up and down a campus hill next to the athletics complex. Near the end of the drill, Ted Agu collapsed and died.
The University of California put out a first-day story that Agu had passed away while jogging on campus with his buddies.
The Alameda County coroner initially ruled that the cause of death was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Deeply concerned by the extremities and punishment orientation of Harrington’s training methods, player Joey Mahalic went to university administrators. They, in turn, directed Mahalic to the campus police. In his statement to police, Mahalic recounted in detail his perception of Harrington’s role in inciting the Hinnant attack on Hale.
John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance, commissioned an independent review of the football strength and conditioning program, to be conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, co-director of sports medicine at UC Davis, and John Murray, a San Francisco-based athletic trainer.
The report, submitted by Tanji on June 9 and running to only three pages, exonerated Harrington.
Ted Agu’s parents sued the University of California in Alameda County Superior Court.
Over the next year and a half, document discovery and depositions of witnesses would prove that:
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the university was admitting liability in the Agu family lawsuit; this set in motion final settlement negotiations. With the assistance of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Chronicle also acquired and quoted from players’ deposition testimony on the extreme drill that drove Agu to death, and on the team members’ dissatisfaction with false accounts and the university’s general handling of the situation.
The newspaper did not, however, report anything from the depositions on how the Agu death motivated some players to refer back to its link to the Hinnant-Hale incident three months earlier. Nor did the Chronicle mention Mahalic’s statement to police on this history. Nor, in this crucial front-page story, was there any mention at all of Hinnant-Hale. Nor were any of the obtained documents published.
February 25, 2016
Sonny Dykes signed a contract extension through 2019. It tops out at $2,525,000 a year, plus up to $600,000 in incentive bonuses.
The Agu lawsuit settled for $4.75 million. So as to avoid public observation and comment, final approval by the UC board of regents was moved up to an “interim” agenda item between regularly scheduled meetings.
Concussion Inc. began acquiring deposition transcripts and other secret documents, and reporting on and analyzing them at ConcussionInc.net.
Harsh new scrutiny of the circumstances surrounding the Agu death, and of Cal athletics generally, by faculty critics – principally Brian Barsky, a professor of computer science, and Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy – led to a call by the UC Berkeley Faculty Association to Chancellor Dirks to delay annual renewal of Harrington’s employment contract pending further investigation. (This faculty group is not the official Faculty Senate.) Harrington makes $150,000 a year, with an $8,000 bonus if the Golden Bears play in a postseason bowl game.
The dissident faculty members cited methodological flaws and conflicts of interest in the 2014 Tanji-Murray review of the football strength and conditioning program. After acquiring an unredacted list of the players interviewed for the review, Concussion Inc. would go on to report that Fabiano Hale, the victim of J.D. Hinnant’s assault, wasn’t even on the interview list.
July 1, 2016
In a letter to the faculty association, Chancellor Dirks promised a second review of the football strength and conditioning program.
August 1, 2016
Dan Mogulof, media spokesperson for Chancellor Dirks, told Concussion Inc.: “The university is in the midst of taking the steps necessary to launch the review. Meaning that we are identifying and recruiting the appropriate experts needed…. The timeline for execution will be established once the roster of consultants/experts is completed, which we hope and expect to happen in the coming weeks. (It is vacation season and many of the people we are trying to reach are not available.)”
Sonny Dykes’ Cal Golden Bears were not on vacation. They were headed to Australia for their season opener, the “Sydney Cup,” against the University of Hawaii on August 26 on ESPN.
August 16, 2016
UC Berkeley president Janet Napolitano confirmed that Chancellor Dirks would resign before the end of the 2016-17 academic year.
ATHLETIC TRAINER ROBBIE JACKSON left Cal in January 2016. According to a profile at LinkedIn, Jackson is now district manager of interventional radiology for the San Francisco office of Cook Medical, a maker of medical devices.
VICE CHANCELLOR JOHN WILTON left his position at Cal in January 2016, according to the announcement, “to return to work in the field of investment management and finance.”
HEAD FOOTBALL TEAM PHYSICIAN CASEY BATTEN left Cal in 2016 and now is reportedly working for the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.
AS THE TED AGU PAPERS WAS BEING PUBLISHED, at least two areas of public records remained unresolved. The UC Berkeley California Public Records Act compliance office told Concussion Inc. that further documents relating to the 2014 Tanji review were being assembled and studied, for either release or claims that they are exempt from release, and their disposition would be announced “on a rolling basis.”
In addition, Concussion Inc. is in discussions with the Alameda County district attorney’s office for possible further disclosure of information from the 2014 Joey Mahalic statement to campus police. Our reporting established that the document was not contemporaneously forwarded by the police to the district attorney. The D.A. then did obtain the police report.
The Berkeley campus public records office has declined to release the report on the grounds that law enforcement records are exempt. As THE TED AGU PAPERS was being published, Concussion Inc. was considering filing state court action under the public records act, because the San Francisco Chronicle already has reported that it does have a copy of the report. (And in an echo of its treatment of the deposition transcripts, the newspaper has quoted selectively from the document but not published it in full.)