by Irvin Muchnick
With the wind-up and pitch of “news from nowhere,” the San Francisco Chronicle has taken the welcome step of ending years of failure to connect the dots between the 2014 punishment drill death of Cal football player Ted Agu and the 2013 “Code Red” beating of Fabiano Hale by teammate J.D. Hinnant. By contrast, readers of Concussion Inc. were informed almost from the get-go that the nexus of both events was the maniacal methods of football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, not-so-secret agent of then head coach Sonny Dykes’ program “culture change.”
The result of the Chron’s efforts, a front-page story published a week ago, is a valuable addition to the scholarship on how King Football maintains hegemony over the missions of even our most prestigious institutions of higher education. This value is diluted, however, by knowledge that the piece adds up to the classic something that’s better than nothing. For what is unwittingly also revealed here is the significant number of pulled punches in the hyped but widely spaced “Chronicle investigations” themselves.
The overall effect is to inflict minimal inconvenience on the ongoing orchestration of the football system’s public health menaces and cover-ups. Thanks to a combination of upper administration public relations and pliant major media, Agu’s death got reduced from an arguable crime, by the basic eye test, to a monetary transaction: specifically, a $4.75 million civil lawsuit settlement with the family. At the very same time, Sonny Dykes was being rewarded with a four-year contract extension whose total compensation, not including incentive bonuses, reached $9.65 million.
(With few exceptions, as listed at the bottom of this article, every figure complicit in the Agu cover-up today has a better job in the football industry than he or she had then. The “she” is Sandy Barbour, the failed Cal athletic director who now holds down the same position at Penn State.)
At https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Cal-scrapped-probe-of-football-program-promised-12958808.php, higher education reporter Nanette Asimov — obviously with little or no support from colleagues in the sports department who know the main characters of this narrative much better — found that Nicholas B. Dirks, the disgraced former chancellor, “scuttled an internal investigation into Cal’s football program that was spurred by the workout-induced death of a player and a fight that left another player with a concussion.”
But Asimov added nothing about the newspaper’s decision to let dangle its own July 2016 report of the chancellor’s announcement of the review; there was never any follow-up coverage of what was taking so long to name its authors and then to publish their conclusions. In the coming weeks, Concussion Inc. will have more on the slow walk of the recently released review by Dr. Elizabeth Joy and Wayne Brazil, which deserves to be known forevermore by the shorthand “strength and conditioning program whitewash 2.0.”
And while the liberation of details of the root player-on-player altercation, including their names, is part of the Chron record at long last, readers are nowhere clued that the newspaper also had near-immediate access to this information, yet chose to self-censor it.
The well-documented reality is that the Hinnant-Hale beatdown, like something out of the movie A Few Good Men, was an open secret; in the immediate aftermath of Agu’s fatal collapse, it became ample evidence of a pattern of Harrington’s out-of-control program.
Whatever excuses the newspaper might have had for not earlier making this link surely expired with a front-page story on January 30, 2016 — its one and only detailed account of the bizarre February 7, 2014, hill-run-cum-rope-pull drill in which Agu, a 21-year-old pre-med walk-on student-athlete, perished. That article was based on leaked deposition transcripts in his parents’ wrongful death suit. After being fed the transcripts by its reporting partner, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Investigative Reporting Program, the Chron pointedly left out mention of the whistleblower testimony of Joey Mahalic, a former backup quarterback. Mahalic had witnessed Harrington’s incitement of Hinnant’s criminal battering of Hale, as well as Agu’s subsequent multiple collapses during the punishment drill.
Crucially, Mahalic also had tied together the two episodes — both in his conscience and in a sequence of statements, virtually identical to his subsequent deposition testimony, which he had made to top athletic department and university officials and to campus police.
Whatever else can be learned about what Cal administrators knew and when they knew it, and how everyone from football team physician Dr. Casey Batten to a campus police lieutenant, Marc Le Coulode, covered up for Harrington, is behind my California Public Records Act (CPRA) lawsuit against the university. Filed in April of last year, the case will have its next hearing on August 1. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Brand has issued a tentative ruling that would relieve the UC Regents of their customary obligation to index withheld documents and list privacy exemption claims for each one. At the same time, Brand has moved in the direction of validating categories of documents in my stonewalled records requests. Of particular interest is a contemporaneous campus police report on the Agu death, which is known to total 141 pages — some large number of which Cal concealed even from the Coroner’s Bureau of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the suspiciously thin batch of documents so far released in my CPRA case is a March 20, 2014, email from Margo Bennett, the campus police chief, to John Wilton, then a senior vice chancellor. “John,” Chief Bennett wrote, “regarding the documents I gave you yesterday, please don’t share the papers … If others need the information, I am happy to give a verbal briefing, but not documents. The case is not available for a [Public Records Act] request and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Notice that, in my review here of the Chronicle story, I am not even focusing on Cal’s initial cover-up of Ted Agu’s sickle cell trait (SCT) and on the university’s lobbying of the county medical examiner for a snap finding of heart failure in the initial autopsy report. This is not because the SCT aspect is unimportant or because the public doesn’t need a better grasp of the management of this condition in the workout regimes of programs of all levels of heavily African-American-populated football player rosters. Rather, it is because regardless of whether the proximate cause of individual football deaths is SCT (such as Agu at Cal or Ereck Plancher at the University of Central Florida in 2008), asthma (such as Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern University in 2001), or traumatic brain injury, the underlying issue is the way corporate actuaries reduce them all to mere “risk management” calculations that obliterate core missions and values.
You know, things like education, the truth, and accountability.
To annotate the San Francisco Chronicle’s belated blowing up of the strength and conditioning program review whitewash 2.0, Concussion Inc. offers the following chronology, culled from our pages, of the foundational player-on-player beating on coach Harrington’s watch.
On October 31, 2013, Fabiano Hale skipped one of the conditioning sessions Harrington regularly held for the team scrubs, known as the “non-traveling squad” because they did not go to away games. In whistleblower Mahalic’s testimony, Harrington unleashed his typical tough love on the athletes, including a succession of “bear rolls” designed to induce as many as possible of them to learn how to carry on even as they were vomiting. From the opening of training, Harrington had made it clear to his charges that they were soft “pussies” who had “Stanford’s cock in your asses,” and he had been brought to Berkeley by Dykes to turn around this sad state of affairs.
On this day, Harrington added extra sets of bear rolls to the standard regimen of toughening-up sadism. He explained that this was because of Hale’s absence. Harrington said he would do nothing direct to discipline Hale. Instead, that would be up to the teammates who were forced to endure extra punishment because of imperfect attendance at the session. “By any means necessary,” Harrington told the gasping players. For emphasis, he punched a fist into an open hand.
The next day, November 1, 2013, at around 5:30 p.m., J.D. Hinnant sucker-punched, beat, and kicked Hale into unconsciousness at the football complex. With a three-inch laceration on his right ear and soft-tissue swelling on the back of his head, Hale was sent to the Tang campus medical center before being transported to the emergency room of Alta Bates Hospital.
Officer Charrisa Spears of the campus police interviewed key personnel at the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville, where much of the football team was being housed prior to the next day’s home game against Arizona. An assistant coach told the police that the coaching staff would look into the matter later. Spears wrote in her report that this assistant coach (not Harrington) “was concerned about the players being distracted by an investigation the night before a game.”
While Hale was recuperating from his concussion, Hinnant was in uniform for the game on November 2, 2013.
Local media made vague reference to a player altercation. On November 9, 2013, Lieutenant Marc DeCoulode told the Chronicle there was no evidence that head coach Sonny Dykes “had any knowledge of this.”
On November 25, 2013, I wrote “The Most Telling Concussion in Cal Football Occurred Off the Field,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=8354. I named the victim, Hale, who was already in mainstream reports, but not the assailant, Hinnant. Meanwhile, the Chronicle was reporting that “the player who instigated” the altercation had been required to attend counseling and perform 25 hours of community service.
On December 4, 2013, I reported that Dan Mogulof, spokesperson for the chancellor, said the incident was under investigation by the campus police.
On January 7, 2014, I reported that campus police had submitted information to the Alameda County district attorney’s office, which would decide whether or not to enter charges.
On January 15, 2014, I reported on the first of my conversations with Paul Hora, an assistant district attorney.
On January 31, 2014, I published the following statement by Hora:
“I will defer the filing of criminal charges at this time. I have up to one year to file misdemeanor charges and 3 years to file felony charges.
The University and Football program have imposed a number of sanctions and rehabilitative measures on the suspect that are ongoing and extend well into the future. I also will demand some additional conditions be imposed during the period of deferral. I want to monitor the suspect’s progress toward meeting his imposed obligations and, at the same time, monitor the victim’s status and wellbeing going forward.
Additionally, I am scheduled to meet personally with the suspect and discuss with him the ramifications of his conduct and the associated criminal liability he continues to face. This process of meeting with the suspect is part of our DACI protocol (District Attorney Corrective Intervention). We have found that our DACI protocol approach can be highly effective under the right circumstances. Of course, if during the period of deferral circumstances warrant the filing of criminal charges, then criminal charges will be filed.
Ultimately, I want this incident to be resolved fairly for all involved and in the interest of justice.”
On February 7, 2014, Ted Agu died. I had planned to publish an analysis and wrap-up of the previous November’s player altercation — including publication of Hinnant’s name — but I postponed the coverage because I thought it would be in poor taste during the Agu grieving period. Like most of the public, I did not yet know that the two incidents were linked. The initial official story on Agu was that he had been stricken while jogging on campus with his buddies.
On April 5, 2014, still unaware of any connection, I published a takeout of Hinnant-Hale, naming Hinnant for the first time, under what is now the historically curious headline “Our (Probably) Final Take on the J.D. Hinnant Altercation With Fabiano Hale in the Cal Football Locker Room.” In reference to the allegation that conditioning coach Harrington had incited Hinnant, the article quoted assistant DA Hora saying, ““I had no evidence of a ‘code red’ here. That would be a very difficult thing to prove.”
During the same period, I quizzed a Chronicle editor on the newspaper’s lame excuse for not publishing Hinnant’s name. The editor was far more concerned with not being quoted or cited than he was in reflecting on the ethics and journalism behind the decision.
As lead story on the front page on January 30, 2016, the Chronicle published the aforementioned article headlined “UC admits liability in 2014 death of Cal football player,” under the byline of Kimberly Veklerov. The piece stated in part, “Head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington devised the new drill to try ‘something new, exciting, fresh, kind of keep the guys engaged,’ according to his deposition.” However, the story did not mention that Harrington also had been a central figure in the earlier Hinnant-Hale incident.
I picked up on the discrepancy in my own January 30 article at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10693.
Though I am not certain that there was a one-to-one correspondence between the deposition transcripts in the Chronicle’s possession at this time and those that would come into my own possession several months later, I am confident that we acquired substantially the same batch. One of the depositions was that of whistleblower Joey Mahalic; the newspaper’s January 2016 account of a possibly imminent settlement of the Agu lawsuit had no reference to it.
On April 12, 2016, Chronicle investigations & enterprise editor Michael Gray responded to my questions of self-censorship by the newspaper. Gray emailed: “It doesn’t appear that you are suggesting there was any error in the Ted Agu story, just that you believe it did not contain certain information you believe might be pertinent.”
On April 22, 2016, Concussion Inc. began publishing and commenting on deposition transcripts we had just acquired, in a series we called “The Ted Agu Papers.”
On April 23, 2016, we first published extensive excerpts of the Mahalic deposition, without yet naming him.
In a telephone interview on April 28, 2016, Lieutenant DeCoulode declined to discuss the Hinnant-Hale incident. “It’s over and done with,” he said.
On May 1, 2016, I began reporting on the slapdash, one-day, conflicts-laden “review” of the football strength and conditioning program that had been conducted in 2014 by athletic department cronies Dr. Jeffrey Tanji of UC Davis and freelance athletic trainer John Murray.
On May 9, 2016, I began pressing Alameda County district attorney Nancy O’Malley and assistant district attorney Hora on the statement to campus police by Mahalic regarding Harrington’s incitement of Hinnant’s assault of Hale. Though subsequent to the announcement of “deferral” of charges against Hinnant, Mahalic’s information seemed pertinent to consideration during the pendency of the deferral and the statute of limitations on the alleged crime.
The DA’s office said, “We do not have, nor have we seen, the statement to which you refer.”
On June 25, 2016, Concussion Inc. published exclusively Harrington’s 2014 “winter workout contract” with players. It included a provision for a “massive punishment session before the entire team,” plus an extreme drill called “Grave Digger.” Cal claimed to me that it had in its records a different version of the “contract” and had no knowledge of this one.
On June 29, 2016, the Chronicle reported criticism by dissident faculty of the clearly flawed Tanji-Murray review of the strength and conditioning program. The article drew from the Mahalic deposition and referred to the Hinnant-Hale incident, but still did not name Hinnant.
On July 1, 2016, Chancellor Dirks said he was ordering a second strength and conditioning program review. Dirks said, “It is important for me to say that I have had no reason to believe there was any cover-up in relation to the football team’s strength and conditioning program, or its coach, during 2013-14.” Dirks further claimed, without backup: “Because some people asked whether Coach Harrington may have had some responsibility for the alleged assault, UCPD specifically investigated this question, and concluded at that time Harrington had done nothing wrong.” The chancellor said “the findings of the police investigation were then referred to the Alameda district attorney, who declined to file charges in the matter” — but failed to add that the Mahalic statement, after Agu’s death, had not been so forwarded.
On September 6, 2016, Concussion Inc. published the transcript of Mahalic’s campus police interview.
And now the San Francisco Chronicle has gotten religion on how it all ties together.
Too late to make a real difference, but better late than never.
Sonny Dykes was fired by Cal on January 8, 2017; he is now head football coach at Southern Methodist University.
Damon Harrington, strength and conditioning assistant under Dykes at both Louisiana Tech and Cal, is at Grambling State.
Robbie Jackson, head athletic trainer at the time of the Agu death, is out of the football industry. Another athlete, Ereck Plancher, had died of a similar sickling attack during conditioning drills while Jackson was on the training staff at Central Florida. Cal has never disclosed how Harrington and Jackson were interviewed and vetted prior to their hires.
Dr. Casey Batten — the football team head physician who called county medical examiner Thomas Beaver, within hours of Agu’s death, to press for a finding of cause of death other than sickling attack, and concealed from Beaver the university’s knowledge that Agu was a sickle cell trait carrier — is a doctor for the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.
As mentioned above, then Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour is at Penn State.
Deputy athletic director Solly Fulp moved to the Cal central administration in a position coordinating corporate sponsorships. The job was newly created and it does not appear that anyone else was interviewed for it prior to Fulp’s hire. Fulp then left for an executive position with the Learfield company, which packages sponsorships for college sports programs across the country.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced he would resign on August 16, 2016. His three-and-a-half-year tenure seems destined to go down as the most disastrous in the history of UC Berkeley, and one of the worst at any UC campus and at any of the nation’s top-tier universities.
2017 op-ed article for the Daily Californian on my Public Records Act lawsuit:http://www.dailycal.org/2017/04/25/lawsuit-uc-regents-emblematic-issues-facing-college-football/
Second op-ed article for the Daily Californian (published May 4):http://www.dailycal.org/2018/05/03/years-later-questions-remain-regarding-football-player-ted-agus-death/
“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: https://concussioninc.net/?p=10877