by Irvin Muchnick
A teammate of Ted Agu, who watched him perish on a Berkeley campus hillside in 2014 during a bizarre early morning conditioning drill that would lead to a $4.75 million wrongful death lawsuit settlement by the university, was so distressed by the extreme methods of football strength coach Damon Harrington that he went to investigators for the Alameda County sheriff a month later. In his police statement, as well as in the deposition in the civil lawsuit, the teammate also detailed the incident three months earlier in which an altercation Harrington had instigated between two other players, J.D. Hinnant and Fabiano Hale, left the latter hospitalized with a concussion.
The second part is indisputable evidence that a January 2016 front-page San Francisco Chronicle story on the imminent Agu family civil settlement — a report on which the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism assisted, and which was said to have been based on leaked deposition transcripts and interviews — consciously withheld from the public critical and verified details on the dangerously out-of-control program of head coach Sonny Dykes and conditioning coach Harrington.
Concussion Inc. acquired this deposition and many others, and will be publishing them in full in the near future, along with other documents, in a project we are calling “The Ted Agu Papers.”
Until the papers are published, this reporter generally will have a policy of not identifying the individuals who gave whistleblowing deposition testimony. Yesterday I contacted the deponent of this story by email and invited him to go on the record earlier.
This particular football player, who was questioned by attorneys in the Agu family lawsuit on February 26, 2015, spoke of his interview with Alameda County sheriff investigators more than a month after Agu’s February 7 death. (In the deposition transcript, the date is pinned down as March 19 at one point, March 9 at another.) The teammate confirmed that he had reached out to the police, and added at various points in the deposition:
- “I was concerned about the level of conditioning … so I brought it to the attention of people that would know.”
- “I was concerned that it was too difficult.”
Asked to specify what concerned him about Harrington, the player said:
- “I would say that the — the fact that he preached toughness to a point where I was concerned and thought that I needed to say something to the people — the representatives at Cal, because it was difficult and there was a very adamant preaching about being tough, no matter what.”
The player added:
- “We had Friday workouts for the non-travel group that were said to be geared towards toughness that didn’t necessarily involve exercises that were to make us stronger, but to make us tougher.”
He agreed — “Yes” — with the deposition questioner’s characterization that he was concerned that the drills “were designed toward wearing everyone out and causing players to throw up.”
The deposition transcript then has this passage:
Q. And you brought to the attention of the authorities a particular instance where the player was late or missed a drill and Coach Harrington suggested something needed to be done, but he wasn’t going to do it. Do you recall that incident?
Q.Why don’t you describe that to the jury [that potentially could be viewing the videotape of the deposition]?
A.We had a kid miss a workout on Halloween, and the whole team was punished without that player being there. And so we were — were punished up on the field doing very different exercises, rolling on the field.
Q.[…] I know it’s difficult, but you’re going to have to describe what do you mean by that, difficult. What exactly were you asked — what were you ordered to do?
A. We did exercises of rolling a number of yards on the ground, bear walks, crab walks, up-downs, many up-downs, more rolling. And those are the ones that I recall the best.
Q. You estimate you rolled, what, 100 yards?
A. Yeah, I stand by my statement in the police report.
Q. And did the players — not just you — but did most of your surrounding players get unbelievably dizzy and, in your words, and nauseated, throwing up, sick?
A. I personally was very — was very dizzy, and from — but that’s all I can speak of. I — I saw throw up. But that’s all I know. I know what I saw and I know what I felt. That’s it.
Q. Did you see other players throwing up and reacting much like you were?
A. I — I saw throw up, yes.
The questioning lawyer for the Agu family went on to confirm that, before the deposition, the deponent consulted with “a mentor from Cal” who “connected me to a defense lawyer” — Matthew Conant, lead counsel for the university in the lawsuit.
The plaintiff lawyer asked, “Do you feel uncomfortable criticizing Coach Harrington now as you sit here under oath — or the Cal program.” The player replied, “I don’t think I feel uncomfortable about telling the truth.”
Q. Is it Fabiano Hale [who missed the workout, leading to the non-travel group’s collective punishment drill]?
A. Fabiano Hale, correct.
Q. Okay. And then what happened?
A. Later that day, from what I heard — I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it, but obviously, it happened — Fabiano was confronted by J.D. Hinnant and J.D. — I don’t know how — all I know is J.D. performed some kind of a physical violence against him that caused him to go to the hospital.
Q. Okay. Let’s don’t talk about things. That’s kind of speculation. That’s what you understood to happen?
Q. You knew that Mr. Hale went to the hospital at some point in time subsequent?
Q. You knew from your personal experience and knowledge that he had been somehow physically assaulted, and as a result of that assault he went to the hospital? That’s what you know?
A. Correct, correct, correct.
Q. [W]hat did the coach do, if anything, to elicit what you perceive to be some type of resultant conduct. What you saw, what did Coach Damon Harrington do?
A. He said he was not going to take care of it himself, and that it was on the team to take care of it.
Q. Did he make any physical gestures when he was doing that? With his fist and then demonstrate —
A. Yes, he — he —
Q. That’s why I have this video, so you can show the jury what did he do.
A. Right. He held up his fist when he said that.
Q. And did he take his fist and hit it in his hand and suggested the team take care of it?
The questioning returned to why the deponent went to the police in March 2014.
A. My concerns were that he was being too — give — administering — what’s the word — conditioning that was too difficult. And his — the way that he was speaking to the players was inappropriate.
Q. Okay. You didn’t mention that yet. So let’s talk about that.
Q. What are you — what are you saying? You’ve got experience. You’re probably the oldest person on the team; is that right?
A. Uh-huh, correct.
Q. Okay. You’ve been around sports. What do you mean his — his speaking — his manner of speaking to the team?
A. Things that —
Q. I want specifics.
A. Things that he was — he was saying to us about not being soft.
Q. Like what?
A. What do you mean by —
Q. What was he saying?
A. Well, a lot of swearing with, don’t be soft, you need to be tough. I can’t — I can’t give you exact quotes, other than it had to do with being soft, being tough. And there was a lot of lewd comments.
Q. Okay. And I’m not trying to embarrass you … but you know, the only way a jury is going to find out what was said … is if you say it…. So you specifically pointed out an instance that caused you great concern because of the younger players. The soft comments were made about what? About Berkeley and the atmosphere of this environment, this — this college environment?
A. Correct. I stand by my statement in the police testimony when I said that.
Q. Okay. And he used inappropriate language?
Q. A lot of profanity?
Q. Okay. And when the players were engaged in conditioning drills, was that the type of — of profanity and — and verbal abuse that you were talking about?
Q. Okay. Were there a lot of cuss words?
Q. Okay. What type of cuss words?
A. Would you like me to —
A. — state. Fuck.
Q. The player was struggling. What would — what would typically be said?
A. I mean, I can’t give you verbatim quotes, but —
Q. Just give me some —
A. Fuck, shit, pussy, God, cock — I don’t know.
Q. Didn’t he specifically say something about [arch-rival] Stanford that you reported to the police?
Q. What was that?
A. He said that Stanford has you bent over with their cock in your ass.
Q. And you found that especially troubling because of the young players on the team?
A. That — that was my biggest concern with what he had to say.
The deponent responded to questions about his talking to the police about “a kind of culture that was established or attempted to be established by Coach Harrington.”
- “He was very adamant about toughness, and that was his main thing.”
- “[In his words,] tough as shit.”
- “And he was trying to make people throw up, spinning around.”
- “Doing all kinds of stuff that was basically kind of a punishment more, you know, torture type deal.”
Returning to the precursor to the Hinnant assault of Hale, with the deponent reading from the his police statement:
Q. Okay. And then I asked earlier in your deposition about the fist. Do you remember? And then the lawyer for the defendant objected, saying I was leading you?
Q. Okay. Look at that line 15. What were you talking about when you were telling the police that he was standing in front of everyone. He brought everyone together. He said he wasn’t going to punish anybody himself.
Q. But he put it on the team to take care of it. And he said — those are your words? What did he say?
A. By any means necessary.
Q. And by doing what, you mentioned?
A. Putting his fist into his hand.
More on what the deponent said in the police report about Harrington’s “culture”:
- “If you’re working out and you’re throwing up, you have to keep going through the drill and still be throwing up.”
- “You can’t be bending down to throw up or anything like that. So that’s the mentality that we have.”
The deponent’s father, a retired National Football League player, was among those who prompted him to go to the police after Agu died. Indeed, going to the police had been discussed after the Hinnant-Hale incident, before Agu’s death.
A. [A]fter the Fabiano Hale case and in consulting with my father, he contacted an administrator [in the Cal athletic department[ that said, go to the police. And that was — that was that. We didn’t — we didn’t go to the police [until later].
Q. Sorry. The Cal administrator that was contacted by your father, I understand your father expressed his concerns about what was going on and the reaction was, well if you’ve got something, go to the police. And you-all didn’t — you-all decided not to go to the police.
Q. The time it was suggested to your father to talk to the police, rather than Cal, was about that incident you shared with us earlier?
A. When —
A. Okay. Like a Few Good Men incident where there was an inference that something be done to this player?
Defense lawyer Conant:I think that’s —
THE WITNESS:I’ve never seen that movie.
Plaintiff lawyer Steve Yerrid:You should see it. It’s good.
Earlier Concussion Inc. reports about the Hinnant-Hale incident, which suggested that the workout Hale skipped was a weightlifting session and that the punishment by Harrington was an extra set for the team members in attendance, were wrong in those details. But as we can see in the deposition transcript, the correct details are even worse.
A current Cal faculty investigation, outside the scope of the Agu Papers, has turned up additional and still worse details implicating not only strength coach Harrington but also head football coach Dykes, in the Hinnant-Fabiano incident foreshadowing the Agu death. Next week, Concussion Inc. will report on this aspect of the story.
Returning to the Agu Papers,, we then will examine the testimony pertaining to the “rope drill” itself during which Agu died. Here the key point is that with the exception of two witnesses, every single witness clearly remembered that Agu was in obvious deep distress throughout the fatal conditioning drill and had collapsed repeatedly at earlier junctures. The outlier exceptions to this account — who represented that Agu was leading the entire pack throughout the ten hill-climb laps, before suddenly collapsing on the last lap — were now-departed athletic trainer Robbie Jackson and strength coach Damon Harrington.
In response to an inquiry from Concussion Inc., Chancellor Nicholas Dirks declined comment on Harrington’s status. University spokesman Dan Mogulof told us, “We don’t comment on personnel issues.”