Football Historian Matt Chaney Aids Researchers Uncovering Long-Buried Cases of Sickle Cell Trait Death

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Concussion Inc.’s ebook THE TED AGU PAPERS: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football is available on Kindle-friendly devices at One hundred percent of royalties are being donated to sickle cell trait research and education.


by Irvin Muchnick


The 2014 conditioning drill death of University of California-Berkeley football player Ted Agu — shamefully covered up by the school and its officials in what is now one of the main threads of Concussion Inc.’s investigative work — has transformed into something much larger.

As I’ll explain, we have to thank for this the relentless and painstaking historical research of Missouri author and journalist Matt Chaney, whose public health-based critiques of the American football system far predate my own.

First, though, I want to outline how we got there.

If one can make such a statement about the death of a 21-year-old man that was not only preventable, but also in my view criminal, the Agu scandal is a timely one in the national football debate. I say so even as the major media continue to ignore it.

Those ignoring it include the San Francisco Chronicle, in whose backyard Agu’s legacy is still playing out. The Chronicle even got all the launch documentation for the story from Lowell Bergman’s self-proclaimed Investigative Reporting Program at the Berkeley journalism school, yet chose to bury the lead. There has not been a peep from the Bay Area’s largest newspaper since it briefly led a summer pile-on that forced Nicholas Dirks, Cal’s now lame-duck chancellor, to promise a second and better internal review of the strength and conditioning program of football coach Sonny Dykes’ assistant Damon Harrington. (A promise on which the university has yet to deliver, by the way. Perhaps it is waiting for Donald Trump to release his tax returns and for Melania to hold that press conference explaining her mid-1990s work visa.)

My first thought was that Agu’s death was instructive because it underscored that football’s worst excesses could happen anywhere — not just in such obvious cultural petri dishes as Waco, Texas (home of Baylor), and State College, Pennsylvania (home of Penn State), but also at the world’s most renowned public university and a hotbed of left-wing politics.

My second thought — spurred by the invaluable research of Dr. E. Randy Eichner — was that sickle cell trait death in football presented a special moral challenge to football’s apologists, much as concussions do. The idea that the sport’s fallout involves systematic and undisclosed traumatic brain injury (with lifelong mental and neurological deficits) cannot be sloughed off in the way we observe, say, an ex-jock walking with a limp. Similarly, the denial of the sickle cell factor in an activity with disproportionate African-American participation (most especially at the performer/entertainer level) takes us straight to racial politics, the bedrock burden of our national history.

What Matt Chaney does, on an ongoing basis, is page through the contemporaneous coverage of football and tote up its cost. His thumbnails of death reports are as close to comprehensive as you can get for the post-1960 period. Additionally, they are a uniquely thorough resource for as far back as the 1870s.

Matt’s project has no fixed ideology. His research shows death and disability from a range of causes never admitted into official literature, and on a scale never acknowledged by either memory or history. Concussions. Sickle cell trait. Spinal injury. Internal organ failure. Heart failure. Heat stroke. Asthma. The list goes on and on. In isolation, each category might be justified or mitigated. But in cumulation, the questions it raises about football’s central role in American life become devastating to all but the most close-minded.

Which brings us, without further ado, to what happened when Randy Eichner met Matt Chaney, and the two of them — along with Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma and another leading sickle cell trait researcher — started comparing notes.

For years, Chaney has been criticizing as woefully incomplete the annual reports on football deaths compiled by the football industry-friendly National Center for Catstrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. In 2013 he wrote in part:


“A teen football player dies suddenly in America, for reasons unrelated to collisions on the field, and the postmortem investigation produces more questions than answers—particularly whether the stressful sport contributed mortally.

And so it goes for too many fatal cases of active football players, mostly juveniles, with the game’s possible link neither verified nor nullified because of two prime areas of limitation:

First, the reputedly ‘deficient’ state of autopsy in America, especially for children, as part of the death-investigations system that a National Academy of Sciences report characterizes as ‘fragmented’ and ‘hodgepodge.’

And, secondly, the equally challenged research field of football fatalities, presently funded by game organizations and led by two men lacking medical doctorates and certifications, Fred Mueller and Bob Colgate, a professor and a sport administrator, respectively, who largely troll news reports for gathering incomplete data.”


The annual lists are especially defective, Chaney has shown, at the sub-college level: they simply do not document with professionalism the numerous fatal or otherwise catastrophic incidents in high school, Pop Warner, and sandlot football. Nor can these episodes be excused as “under the radar.” They are in news reports in real time — and the completely unfunded Chaney has found them.

Last week I wrote about Anderson’s paper on sickle cell trait (SCT) deaths in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I football. The article, currently in press for the Journal of Athletic Training, shows that SCT accounts for nearly half of all non-trauma football deaths over the last generation at that level.

Further, thanks to increased awareness from the Anderson-Eichner research, there had been a gap in such deaths between 2010 and 2014. The latter was when UC coach Dykes’ assistant Harrington sent their team off on a crazy “volunteer” offseason hill-climbing and rope-pulling punishment-competition. The group included Ted Agu, a known SCT carrier who fell stricken, not once but several times during the drill, and received no attention from the training and medical staff prior to his final and fatal collapse. The university then withheld from the Alameda County coroner knowledge of Agu’s SCT — leading to an initial inaccurate finding of cause of death, until the family’s civil lawsuit against the school uncovered the truth.

After writing about the Anderson paper, I introduced Eichner and Anderson to Chaney. Their consultations are ongoing, but they have already identified one previously unknown SCT death, that of Mark Brown at Prairie View A&M in Texas in 1976. It’s a remarkable trail of medical sleuthing. Anderson acquired a 28-page autopsy file, now 40 years old, which includes a letter from a Baylor University pediatrician to the Houston medical examiner. On September 7 of that year, the doctor, Donald Fernbach, wrote to Dr. Eduardo Bellas, the forensic pathologist, that the Brown case was “worthy of close examination because it raises the possibility that black athletes with SCT may be at risk from extremes of exertion or heat exhaustion.”

The experts are drilling deeper into the medical literature to make sure that the Mark Brown finding is indeed a full-fledged new discovery, rather than a re-discovery. But even if it turns out to be the latter, the fact that it’s news to Eichner and Anderson is a major illustration of how lightly SCT has been regarded, followed through on, and prevented.

This much seems fair to say: Two decades before 1996, when Eichner and Anderson began running hard with this subject, football deaths by exertional sickling might already have been in the process of being hidden in plain sight. (Nothing in this essay should suggest that the opinions here are anyone’s but my own. To a certain extent Eichner, a former University of Oklahoma team physician, still works on the inside of the college football industry. And of course Anderson is thoroughly immersed in it. )

More breakthroughs are sure to follow from this important and historic new collaboration.

The only thing we don’t know is whether, if Matt Chaney, Randy Eichner, and Scott Anderson proceed to uncover more information inconvenient to the football establishment, anyone will be listening.





Sickle Cell Trait — Killer of Ted Agu and Eric Goll — Accounts For Roughly Half of College Football Deaths. But Raising Awareness Is a Political Football.

Published October 20th, 2016

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick