by Irvin Muchnick
One of his players, testifying to the teaching methods of Damon Harrington — the Cal football strength and conditioning coach whose February 2014 conditioning drill was where Ted Agu died, and who is accused of inciting another of his players to beat up a teammate three months earlier — said Harrington was oriented toward “down south mental toughness” rather than technique. The player also said Harrington promoted what were called “swagger games,” in which teammates were pitted against each other in tests of toughness under punishment.
This is the latest from “The Ted Agu Papers,” which Concussion Inc. is acquiring from disparate inside sources, and reporting on and analyzing. The papers will be published in the near future as an ebook, with sales benefiting sickle cell research. Agu carried the sickle cell trait and it was eventually ruled a contributing factor in his death, though the University of California at first tried to conceal its knowledge that Agu was a carrier.
The excerpt below is from the February 26, 2015, deposition of this newly cited player, who was giving testimony in the pre-trial stage of the Agu family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the university. A trial was aborted by a recent $4.75 million settlement.
Prior to publication of the ebook, Concussion Inc. does not intend to name player-deponents. Earlier we wrote about a player who, after Agu’s death, was so distraught over Harrington’s coaching style that he told police in detail of how Harrington had appeared to manipulate player J.D. Hinnant into severely beating teammate Fabiano Hale, and sending Hale to the hospital with a concussion. The UC Berkeley campus police say the investigation of the Hinnant-Hale incident, in which the Alameda County district attorney “deferred” one or more criminal charges against Hinnant, is closed. District attorney Nancy O’Malley’s office told this reporter that it never saw the police statement regarding Harrington, and will not comment on whether it will ask the campus police for it.
Also awaiting full documentation is an administrative review of Harrington conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Tanji of the sports medicine program at UC Davis. Harrington’s own deposition in the Agu case suggested that the outcome of the review was that he was suspended for one day in response to complaints.
The deponent in today’s story also remarked upon Harrington’s elevation of mental toughness over exercise technique, and talked about the coach’s peculiar and controversial motivational methods. Here are extended questions and answers.
Q. […] And then in the summer of 2013, Coach Harrington became the football strength and conditioning coach?
Q. Describe for me, if you will, the difference in the conditioning workouts between [predecessor strength coach Mike] Blasquez and Coach Harrington.
A. Blasquez, everything with him is like technique — I want to build — I want to build an athlete. I want to build whatever strengths I can to make you a better athlete. He’s — he’s going to do — that’s what his workout’s like. That — that’s how he carries out his workouts. He’s — he’s going to do workouts that help make you a better athlete.
And then, we would just do like technique stuff. We would do some conditioning, but nothing like Damon’s. We do a lot of agility work, just trying to just craft your skill.
And then Damon’s workouts, his are — his are a whole different type of workout. His are like some down south mental toughness, I’m going to build — we’re building some soldiers here. His is all mental toughness. It’s like, we got to push you to your edge and see if you can go even further. Building like some mentality that you’ll never quit, you won’t give up.
And so that’s the mentality — that’s the type of workouts, the conditioning he put us in. And then the conditioning really helped us out. We were — because it taught us — or it improved our like conditioning dramatically. We also helped our — our mental toughness, like, you know, get through this, get through this. Don’t give up. And they helped bring like — it helped bring the team together, too.
But his main focus was just like, mental toughness. Build this — build your — your toughness. Like go further, gor farther than you think you can. If you think you’re done here, you can actually go a little further. Never give up, just type of mentality. That’s what his workouts, his conditioning workouts, yeah.
Q. Right, yeah. That’s what I’m mostly concerned with. I don’t really care about the weightlifting.
A. No, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q. The running and the conditioning.
A. Yeah, definitely. That’s what it was. Blasquez was about tuning your craft and Damon is, I’m going to run you. We’re going to see how much you can run. That’s what it was.
Q. Let me ask, there’s been some talk about punishment drills.
Q. Did strength coaches do punishment drills for missed classes or being late?
A. Yeah, definitely.
Q. Is that something that Coach Blasquez and Coach Harrington would do?
Q. Okay. What about in terms of punishment drills for poor performance in a drill or for coming in last place in a drill. Was there any punishment for that?
A. Yeah, there was definitely —
Q. Let’s — did that occur under Coach Blasquez?
A. No, it didn’t.
Q. Okay. Did punishment drills for poor performance, was that something that started when Coach Harrington came?
Q. Tell me what you remember about that.
A. That it was — that started because of these things called swagger games. That was the whole team that we were in.
Q. Swagger games?
A. The swagger game. It’s like our team was split up into — into little teams, and then we would like compete against each other, which teams would have the best academic performances. Which teams have the best athletic performances. And, yeah, stuff like that.
And then so — then those teams would add up scores, and whoever comes in last place, you were — you were punished for being in last place, so you would have to show up the Wednesday morning, and you would have to — you wouldn’t — nothing like — nothing terribl, but it was just waking up 6:00 a.m. or 5 — 5-something in the morning to work out at 6:00 a.m. on the field.
That was — that was pretty much the punishment, just showing up on a Wednesday. Because that’s our day off, and nobody wants to wake up at like 5-something in the morning on our day off and come work out. So they would be punished by waking up and coming — having to come. It would take — it would probably take like 20 minutes to finish — 15 — 15 minutes to finish that workout. They would just show up, push a couple — push a couple of things, like some sleds, drag a couple sleds, or do a couple of rows, like 100, 200 yards of rows or some bear crawls or something.
But, yes, whoever showed up in last place in the swagger games — whatever team came up last place for that — for that week.
An exhibit attached to this deposition transcript lists all the groups for these “swagger games.” Coincidentally, Ted Agu, J.D. Hinnant, and Fabiano Hale were in the same group.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has rules on the books for the amount of time student-athletes can be required to spend every week on their sport. Division I football programs, such as Cal’s, mock these rules with a combination of blatant non-enforcement and fudging the definitions of extracurricular training. Though much of the latter technically is not “mandatory,” athletic scholarships are completely dependent on the whim of the school and its coaches, on a year-to-year basis, to the point where the distinction between voluntary and non-voluntary training becomes meaningless. More on this aspect of the story as we move along.