by Irvin Muchnick
The dam has broken on the cover-up of the death of Jordan McNair earlier this year in football conditioning at the University of Maryland. After ESPN broke the story of a “toxic culture” inside the program — a hyper-macho, psycho bullying environment, installed from the top down, that daily put unpaid student-athletes at risk of what finally happened to McNair — the university put a batch of responsible coaches and staff on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation due to be released next month.
The personnel out of work, provisionally and maybe permanently, are head football coach DJ Durkin, head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson, director of athletic training Steve Nordwall, and assistant athletics director for sports performance Rick Court. (The latter’s title is a fancy version of “strength and conditioning coach.”)
On May 29, McNair collapsed from heat stroke during offseason conditioning; he got a liver transplant and ultimately died on June 13. On February 7, 2014, the University of California-Berkeley’s Ted Agu had died of ECAST — exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait — during offseason conditioning. The parallels are striking but the consequences are not.
Sonny Dykes, Cal’s head football coach at the time, signed a multimillion-dollar contract extension almost simultaneous with the university’s $4.75 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit by the Agu family, which was designed to keep forever hushed up the details of an effective negligent homicide. Dykes now has the same job at Southern Methodist University.
The architect of Dykes’ own “toxic culture” and the director of the bizarre punishment drill that sent Agu to an early grave was Damon Harrington, the strength and conditioning coach. Harrington, whom Cal apparently never even vetted prior to his hire, got two more renewals of his $150,000-a-year-plus-bowl-bonus gig. He now holds the same position at Grambling State University.
Concussion Inc. has been covering the Ted Agu death since before there was a Ted Agu death. That is because three months prior to the fatal incident, Harrington had incited a freshman player, J.D. Hinnant, to beat up and put into the hospital another, Fabiano Hale, for skipping a conditioning session and thereby forcing Hinnant and his teammates to endure extra sets of Harrington’s punishment drills. A “Code Red,” as they called it in the movie A Few Good Men.
The connection between the Hinnant-Hale altercation and the Agu death — confirmation of a pattern of a “toxic culture” — became evident within months when a conscience-stricken student-athlete whistleblower, Joey Mahalic, reported to several top Cal officials and the campus police his witness of a range of Harrington’s verbal and physical abuses.
Yet nothing happened, largely because no one in the major media dared to amplify the story to its real dimensions. That is to say, no one with a platform more formidable than my own.
The San Francisco Chronicle is especially culpable of journalistic malpractice in the Agu death aftermath. Early in 2016, the Chronicle splashed a one-and-done front-page piece on the imminent lawsuit settlement, but consciously left out the best parts. In association with the Berkeley journalism school investigative reporting program director, the legendary Lowell Bergman, the newspaper had acquired deposition testimony containing multiple iterations of the same sorts of observations about the Dykes-Harrington regime that are found in the current ESPN coverage of the McNair death at Maryland. But the Chron didn’t publish them.
Later in 2016 Concussion Inc. acquired the same deposition transcripts, ran a series of articles based on them, and compiled them in the ebook THE TED AGU PAPERS: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football. In the next posts here, we will flash back to the most dramatic excerpts of those depositions.
Currently, this reporter is in Alameda County Superior Court fighting the University of California Regents in a Public Records Act lawsuit for release of additional internal documents on the Agu cover-up. So far, flexing the best legal gymnastics muscles money can buy, the university has cited the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act to get away with not even producing a listing of withheld documents called a Vaughn Index. Indeed, UC will not disclose so much as whether it has five or 5,000 pages of such files.
But the good news is that we are headed for resolution of a dispute over whether the university must produce 141 pages of campus police reports in the weeks subsequent to Agu’s death. These are known to include a version of the whistleblower’s statements. During the Agu family lawsuit, it was established that many of these 141 pages had been withheld by Cal even from the county sheriff’s office, which was in the midst of gathering materials in support of the medical examiner’s Agu autopsy report. Recently, after claiming that it wasn’t sure what my lawyer Roy Gordet and I were talking about, the university conceded to Judge Jeffrey S. Brand that it does possess “a binder” of the evidently corresponding documents, totaling 141 pages.
Nine days ago this site broke the story of a 911 call and the hospitalization with rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening overexertion syndrome, of another Cal Golden Bears football player in January 2018 on the first day of winter conditioning. This student-athlete, like Ted Agu, carries the sickle cell trait (a factor that then football team physician Dr. Casey Batten — now with the Los Angeles Rams — had concealed from the county coroner during the Agu autopsy).
In the upcoming week we’ll have more on the new scare at Cal and whether it played into the last six months of delays before the recent public release by the university of a second whitewash review of the football strength and conditioning program.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jordan McNair died on May 29. He collapsed on May 29 and died on June 13. A correct update is now in the body of the piece above.
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