by Irvin Muchnick
The San Francisco Chronicle sports section, which punted the story of the cover-up of Ted Agu’s 2014 death in Cal football and treats the global narrative of football’s safety crisis like it’s a deer tick, did something very curious last week. Under the byline of columnist Ann Killion, it ran a piece headlined “Good journalism is vital in sports, too.”
In the short item, Killion correctly pointed out, “Two stories that have rocked college football in the past month wouldn’t have come about without diligent reporting from journalists facing down a system that wants nothing more than to shut them out and shut them up.”
One example she cited of good recent work by sports journalists is the uncertain future of Ohio State University coach Urban Meyer after he publicly lied about his knowledge of domestic violence allegations against one of his assistants.
The other example may be more revealing than the Chronicle thinks.
“On Tuesday,” Killion wrote, “the president of the University of Maryland admitted that his football program did not follow basic medical procedures in the death of a 19-year old player. The admission came 77 days after Jordan McNair collapsed at practice; according to reports, it took nearly an hour before 911 was called. Maryland’s mea culpa arrived more than two months after McNair died June 13.”
What the columnist didn’t add is something Concussion Inc. has been exposing for years: that in the Agu case, the University of California-Berkeley had its very own Jordan McNair scenario, and it was all right under the Chronicle‘s nose. And that it was the newspaper’s subsequent lackadaisical and diluted coverage that allowed this homegrown story to remain on the backburner of local consciousness, instead of in the foreground of the national discussion of college football conditioning and the maniacs who run it.
For an illustration of the larger conversation the McNair death has spurred — the one the Agu could have and should have gotten the jump on prompting — see the Wall Street Journal piece on Friday headlined “Strength coaches in college football have become strongmen,” with the subhead “Maryland player’s death the latest to draw scrutiny to offseason workouts; ‘We are killing our players’.” The link is https://www.wsj.com/articles/strength-coaches-in-college-football-have-become-strongmen-1534506902?shareToken=st3c92bb8f6fc34e3684526ff3fe71eef4&ref=article_email_share.
Here’s another: “’Junction Boys syndrome’: how college football fatalities became normalized,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/aug/19/college-football-deaths-offseason-workouts.
Most people reading this article know that I have invested freelance resources in creating the thoroughest possible record of the Agu cover-up. These include public information litigation in state court that is nearing important rulings on possible release of 141 pages of secret campus police reports in the aftermath of that death — for which the University of California put taxpayers on the hook for a $4.75 million civil lawsuit settlement with the family.
But here I’d like to do more than just tweak the San Francisco Chronicle, once again, for fumbling Agu. (Of course, I’ll do that, too.) Additionally, I seek to contribute to understanding how the newspaper’s failure with this story ties into its overall passive sports coverage. “Good journalism is vital in sports, too.” Almost everyone likes to say so, but not many carriers of the message are supplying good journalism.
I also want to suggest a sociological and economic explanation. The contemporary death rattle of metropolitan daily newspapers, due to a changing media landscape, has a uniquely unfortunate dynamic when it comes to enterprise sports journalism. The reason may be that as the newspaper business model shrivels, sports has become one of the last remaining categories of hoped-for profitability. This makes easier the call to compromise diligence there. Indeed, since there are plenty of ostensibly more serious subjects than sports, the call was always easier in the first place.
Understand that when I pick on the Chron sports section, I’m not picking nits. Last month the newspaper published a story under the headline “Gruden applauds youth football,” https://www.sfgate.com/raiders/article/Raiders-Jon-Gruden-presents-a-boost-to-local-13083938.php. The article told of how Jon Gruden, the new coach of the Oakland Raiders, is generous with his time in support of “Sports Matters,” a youth outreach program of Dick’s Sporting Goods.
No one should be surprised to learn that one of the most visible figures in the football industry is arguing that youth football is benign; beyond benign — valuable … indispensable. Gruden must sincerely believe as much. In someone’s news judgment, if not my own, his passionate perspective might even be worthy of such a feature article despite its dog-bites-man banality.
But journalists are obliged, minimally, to reflect context. Do you care to guess how many times this story mentioned that there is a current debate over football’s health risks, including and especially traumatic brain injury? Not as a central theme of the piece, necessarily, but just as a toss-off? The answer is zero. Nowhere did the words “concussion,” “head,” “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” and its variants appear, even in passing.
In the course of highlighting Jon Gruden’s campaign to suit up kid players in shiny new helmets and shoulder pads, courtesy of a sporting goods corporation, the Chron offered its readers no clue that this famous football enthusiast and spokesperson was making a statement that just might be bucking a trend. Parent concern over football’s safety in recent years has led to a decline in participation at the sport’s lower levels; some high schools in California are folding their programs. Yet the publicist-driven reporter didn’t even ask Gruden for boilerplate comment.
Try to imagine a politician staging a visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border, and no one bothering to jot down that the subject of Central American immigration appears to be steeped in a bit of … controversy.
(Neither the Chronicle writer, Matt Kawahara, nor sports editor Al Saracevic responded to my July 21 email asking about this point.)
What in the world happened to newspaper sports journalism?
In 2001, when Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died during conditioning drills at Northwestern University — the first college football death I covered — columnists at the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were all over the lapse in the medical response and what it told us about the skewed priorities of Northwestern football coach Randy Walker (who himself would die of a heart attack five years later). These journalists didn’t succeed in forcing full and appropriate accountability: ultimately an Illinois judge would shove settlement money down the throat of Wheeler’s mother, Linda Will, who was denied the day in court she most wanted. But I wouldn’t accuse the vintage ’01 Tribune and Sun-Times of not having given it the old college try.
By contrast, not a single San Francisco Chronicle columnist, to my knowledge, has weighed in significantly on the Ted Agu story. From my daily reading of the paper in my local market — I don’t base this critique on insider knowledge — it seems that a conscious decision was made to focus the sports section on advertorial, much of it concentrated on the championship runs of local pro and college sports franchises, and on community good feelings and boosterism. The issue-oriented commentary that remains is largely determined by what people see on television. Current hot topics include prominent athletes’ domestic-violence arrests and national anthem protests. Original reporting of anything off the field is nearly nonexistent.
With Agu, the public interest cost of this approach has been large. Minus the contribution of the sports department, coverage fell to the resource- and space-strapped general news department. For the Chronicle, the Agu story, like the death itself, was strictly triage, since your average fly-by alum cared much more about other things, such as when the Golden Bears would be good enough to make their next Rose Bowl.
The job of laying down a full record of the horrendous sequence of events behind the Agu death — ultimately treated in the most perfunctory and, above all, retrospective fashion — did not fall to sportswriters who knew a bit about the program’s major actors and had the capacity to reveal things about it from a penetrating perspective. Rather, the task was added to the to-do list of the Chronicle’s otherwise fine higher education reporter, Nanette Asimov, and to a former editor of the Berkeley campus newspaper, Kimberly Veklerov. (Asimov has done some of her best work on general corruption in the University of California system and on the disastrous and mercifully short regime of Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks.)
These news reporters did the best they could, I suppose. They told Agu largely as a story settled by lawyers behind closed doors. A few heavily coded and widely spaced articles left the most important parts on the locker room floor, literally. No wonder the story quickly petered out of public consciousness.
As in the McNair case at Maryland, there were compelling links between the Agu fatality and a “Junction Boys” mentality in football conditioning. Specifically, Damon Harrington, the strength and conditioning assistant under head coach Sonny Dykes, promoted the same “toxic culture” evident in the accounts surrounding Maryland coach DJ Durkin’s now-dismissed assistant, Rick Court. Three months before Harrington’s extreme conditioning drill caused Agu’s exertional sickling collapse, Harrington had incited one player, J.D. Hinnant, to criminally batter another, Fabiano Hall, for skipping a conditioning drill and giving the coach a sadistic pretext for laying extra sets of punishment on the teammates who were present.
The toxic culture at Maryland was laid bare; the one at Cal, allowed to remain hidden. Today Court is out, and Durkin’s position is precarious pending the imminent results of an investigation. Harrington and Dykes, however, are still employed in their profession. The latter got a raise and contract extension at the same time the university was shelling out the Agu settlement, and now he has a better head coaching job, at Southern Methodist.
One of the telltale signs of these inadequacies of the Chronicle’s coverage came in the summer of 2016. Armed with the latest drib and drab from the Berkeley Faculty Association — a dissident professors’ group shadowing the official and less active Faculty Senate — the news hawks reported that Cal football practice had included a drill called “the Noose.” The implication was that this drill was extreme and, furthermore, perhaps carried connotations of racial lynching. In fact, the Noose is a fairly standard football practice drill dressed up in football-dumb terminology. (An explanation of one version of it is at https://www.xandolabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2323:noose-drill-progression&catid=104&Itemid=170.)
During the same period of the Chron’s shocking Noose drill revelation, Concussion Inc. was acquiring and publishing the “winter workout contract” that all members of the Cal football team had “voluntarily” signed in the weeks prior to Ted Agu’s death. We published the facsimile at http://muchnick.net/harringtonrules.pdf.
Winter conditioning, the contract stated, culminated in “a massive punishment session in front of the entire team featuring the previous week’s losing team as well as violators of self-discipline category.”
Among the winter drills were seven under a category called “combative.” The last of these was named “Grave Digger.”
And dig his grave Ted Agu proceeded to do.
So far the San Francisco Chronicle hasn’t gotten around to that one. Still, sports columnist Ann Killion is right there to make sure we all know that the good journalism of the new and parallel Maryland story is “vital.”
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