Did 911 Call and Rhabdomyolysis Hospitalization of Cal Football Player During Winter Conditioning Motivate Further Delay in Release of ‘Independent’ Program Review?

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by Irvin Muchnick


The scare this year at University of California-Berkeley football winter conditioning — the summoning of emergency medical services to tend to a player with sickle cell trait who would be hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening breakdown of muscle tissue from overexertion — came during the end game of the nearly two-year pendency of the university’s release of a promised “independent” review of the strength and conditioning program in the aftermath of the 2014 conditioning drill death, from exertional sickling, of Ted Agu.

On August 3, Concussion Inc. broke the story of the January 16 incident. No major news media outlet has yet picked up our report.

Now campus sources tell us that the January event may have contributed to months of behind-the-scenes drama over the timing of release of the report. Cal has published the document online, with a date of March 2018. However, the report was not announced and publicly released until June.

In the summer of 2016, then-Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had commissioned a second “independent review” of football strength and conditioning, after the first such report, produced almost immediately following the Agu death by a pair of athletic department cronies, was publicly derided as conflict-ridden and inadequate.

In the fall of 2016, Dirks named Dr. Elizabeth Joy, immediate past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, and Wayne D. Brazil, a retired Berkeley law professor, to collaborate on the second strength and conditioning review.

Brazil has never responded to our inquiries. Presented with the details of this article, Dr. Joy emailed me last Thursday, “I have no comment.” Her no-comment encompassed the report release timeline and the chancellor’s controversial midstream decision to narrow the report’s charge to remove accountability for the Agu death or its precursor: a student-athlete’s criminal assault of a teammate at the arguable incitement of then head football coach Sonny Dykes’ strength and conditioning assistant, Damon Harrington.

In addition, Joy offered no comment on these questions about the January 16 event itself:

  • whether she knew about the incident (according to our sources, she did learn about it shortly prior the release of her report — and it wasn’t the university that informed her);
  • how the handling of the incident by Cal medical, training, and coaching personnel comported with the recommendations of the then-forthcoming Joy-Brazil report; and
  • the advisability of not ordering an MRI of the stricken player, whose collapse was preceded by complaints of back pain — since a cluster of cases of ECAST (Exertional Collapse Associated with Sickle Cell Trait) has isolated a phenomenon called “lumbar paraspinal myonecrosis” (death of lower back muscle tissue).

In a detail we have not previously reported, Concussion Inc. learned that the doctors at the hospital, while not ordering an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, did order a CT (Computerized Tomography) scan. A CT combines X-ray images taken from different angles of the body and processes cross-sectional images of bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues. The purpose of the CT in this case was to rule out kidney stones, which would have been an entirely football-unrelated explanation for the player’s distress. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with a mild-to-moderate case of rhabdomyolysis, or dead muscle tissue entering the bloodstream — the same condition that sent three University of Oregon football players to the hospital last year and led to an outcry against the team’s new head coach and strength and conditioning assistant.

The Golden Bears player’s January lower back pain got ascribed, without elaboration, to “muscle strain.” According to medical literature on sickling attacks, muscle strain is a frequent misdiagnosis of ECAST-caused lumbar paraspinal myonecrosis. And sports medicine experts say an MRI is often superior to a CT in detecting orthopedic problems.

In assessing any possible relationship between the January 16 incident and the timing of the release of the Joy-Brazil report, we do know that the authors submitted it to the administration as much as two months earlier.

We also can surmise that there may be general bureaucratic or public relations explanations for the overall delay of two years between the commissioning of the report and its June 2018 public release, or from the November 2017 submission to the release.

Our new information raises the further question of whether the scary echo of the Agu death, involving a student-athlete known also to be a sickle cell trait carrier, became an additional consideration, or a subset of the bureaucratic or public relations conditions, in putting distance between the incident and the release of Joy-Brazil.

Scrutiny of the January 16 incident at winter conditioning, and its ramifications, comes during intensive national coverage of three college football conditioning deaths this year, bringing to 36 the documented number of non-traumatic, conditioning, or training deaths since 2000. University of Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin and members of his staff have been placed on leave during the investigation of the June death of Maryland player Jordan McNair, and the McNair family attorney has called on the university to fire Durkin in light of the exposure by ESPN of the program’s “toxic culture.”

Concussion Inc. last year sued the University of California Regents under the Public Records Act for additional internal documents related to the Ted Agu death and the precursor November 2013 player-on-player assault. Briefing will be scheduled soon on our attempt to secure release of 141 pages of campus police files in association with the death.



2017 op-ed article for theDaily Californianon 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 theDaily 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

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick