by Irvin Muchnick
Yesterday Concussion Inc. reported on how internal emails disclosed in our California Public Records Act lawsuit show the nervousness of University of California-Berkeley officials over questions about the sickle cell trait (SCT) status of football player Ted Agu, who had just collapsed and died in 2014 during an extreme offseason conditioning drill. The revelation is striking because the record already showed that during the same period, Dr. Casey Batten, the team physician, was pushing hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) as the cause of Agu’s death in a phone conversation with Dr. Thomas R. Beaver, the Alameda County medical examiner — and not breathing a word about the fact that the university knew Agu was an SCT carrier.
Exposure of Batten’s outreach to Beaver, and its upshot, would lead to the revision of the coroner’s cause of death finding: at first listed as HCM, it would be changed to reflect, additionally, that the episode was brought on by exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait (ECAST). Two years after the fatal incident, the UC Regents settled a wrongful death lawsuit by the Agu family for $4.75 million.
For our story yesterday, the university issued a denial: “We reject in the strongest possible terms any suggestion or allegation that our physician, or for that matter anyone else working for the University, ever sought to deceive or mislead anyone in so far as this tragic case is concerned.”
In an additional exchange of emails, I asked Berkeley campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof if there might be further comment on the specific role of Dr. Batten. I noted that the February 2014 university talking points preparation in the aftermath of Agu’s death, as revealed in the newly released internal emails of that period, plausibly represented a desire to respect the family’s privacy and to discourage speculation about the cause of death at the start of the official inquiry. I added that this explanation does not, however, explain the deposition testimony to the effect that Batten simultaneously was concealing SCT from the coroner and spinning him in the direction of HCM.
Mogulof responded with identical verbiage and declined to elaborate: “We reject in the strongest possible terms any suggestion or allegation that our physician, or for that matter anyone else working for the University, ever sought to deceive or mislead anyone in so far as this tragic case is concerned.”
So, let’s go to the timeline.
At 12:55 p.m. on February 7, 2014, Batten was copied on an email by a Cal athletics public relations employee in which Batten, Mogulof, then athletic director Sandy Barbour, and then head football coach Sonny Dykes were presented with the skeleton script and “flow” for an upcoming news conference, which would be televised live.
Batten’s points included a capsule rundown of the medical emergency of just hours earlier. As explained in yesterday’s story, Dr. E. Randy Eichner, the retired football team physician at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on ECAST, makes an emphatic case that this very rundown proved that the Agu collapse had been an episode of ECAST, not HCM. Eichner’s notes of what Batten would say at the news conference also document that Batten’s statements there conformed with his institution-provided talking points.
Rehearsed questions and answers from the script had exactly one item:
“Q Was there anything in Ted’s medical background that would lead you to believe something like this could happen?
A At this time, we are precluded by law to comment on any other medical details and out of respect for the family and the situation.”
On November 5, 2014, Batten was deposed in the Agu family suit. There Batten was asked, “Would it be a fair statement to say that everything you’ve learned about what actually occurred that day [in the February 7 death incident] was related to you by others? You have no personal knowledge of what actually occurred?”
Batten replied, “Yeah. I would say that’s accurate.”
“Q At least — insofar as what you said at the press conference, were all those observations gleaned from your discussions with nonplayers but people affiliated with the University of California?
With respect to Batten’s conversation with medical examiner Beaver, there was this exchange:
“Q Did you ever talk to the coroner?
A I did on the phone.
Q When? After the report was issued?
A After — excuse me? After —
Q After the report was issued, you were able to talk to him?
A Umm, I believe I tried talking with him briefly before that.
Q Before he issued his report?
A (Witness nods head)
Q Why would you do that?
A To give them clinical history.
Q So you provided the clinical history the medical examiner would have used to determine the cause of death?
A No. Our medical records did.
Q Okay. Well, if you provide them medical records, why would you need to talk to them?
A We just sort of — to be a resource.
Q I — I’m not following you. You said to provide them with a history. Did you verbally provide them with a history as well as the —
A No. He did not — he did not take my — my, umm, phone call.
Q You did not talk —
A I talked with him briefly, but I didn’t give him — he didn’t — didn’t give him significant history. They said they’ll take care of it with medical records.
Q So, in other words, you — he — he didn’t want to discuss —
A Yes. Exactly.
Q — the matter what you?
Q Your testimony is that you talked to Dr. Beaver, but Dr. Beaver did not want to discuss the case with you. In terms of the merits, he was going to look at the medical records?
Q Okay. And you never suggested to him your opinions or your history or anything like that, correct?
A Umm, I don’t recall that I had a conversation where we — I think we did say something along the lines of it appeared to be, but it was — I think it was — it might have been after — I really don’t recall when I spoke with him.”
Then there was this exchange:
“Q Did you tell him you thought it was a heart issue that caused this young man’s death — on the telephone — prior to him concluding, as a medical examiner, what the cause of death was?
A I told him that he had — I also called — we gave the sickle cell information to him. And, umm — and said, you know, based on everything, it doesn’t appear — it appears — I don’t remember the exact words I said — but this appears to be most consistent with a cardiac issue. I said I would not be surprised if there was an underlying cardiac issue.
Q You said that to him?
A Yes. Along those lines.”
Batten’s rambling and unpersuasive account would be thoroughly contradicted by Beaver in his own deposition, on June 16, 2015, in this passage:
“A [D]id Dr. Batten ever tell you that Ted Agu had sickle cell trait?
Q No, he did not.
A Okay. So sickle cell trait was not even in your mind at the time you talked to Dr. Batten the day of your autopsy and your cutting young Agu?
Q That’s correct.[…] [I]t didn’t even cross my mind.
A Okay. And having been told that Ted Agu collapsed suddenly, did you then begin to initially believe or lead you to believe that there may be a cardiac death?
Confronted by the Agu family lawyers with new information, Beaver concluded:
“So in my opinion based upon all of the information that I have today as we sit here is that the cause of death is best certified as sickle cell crisis or complications of sickle cell crisis and, and I think that is, outweighs the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.”
There were other factors in the swerving of the medical examiner — most notably, the information about the time lapse from when Agu was first stricken, which so differed between the accounts of Cal medical, training, and coaching personnel and those of eyewitness teammates of Agu on that campus hillside on the fatal morning. In any close analysis, there are also questions as to how Dr. Batten could have allowed himself to be so easily swerved. But in the end Alameda County did revise the finding of cause of death to include ECAST. And the university paid out millions to the Agu family to make the problem go away.
The end result is that today, when you google “Ted Agu cause of death,” you’ll still get the answer “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” rather than “exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait.” If the goal was a wrong first impression that would allow the continued cover-up of a major cause of avoidable conditioning deaths among unpaid, often non-adult, athletes, then it was mission accomplished for the advocates of such a cover-up.
And if you were to argue to me that there remain open questions as to whether Dr. Casey Batten — the team doctor who since moved on to the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League — worked his spinning or lobbying or deception of the coroner with the coordination of other Cal officials, or simply did it on his own, I would agree that we don’t know.
But as to the role of Batten himself, there is no serious question that malfeasance occurred. There are only unserious questions or the kind of blanket dismissal found in the University of California’s redundant and empty denials.
This is why it is important to get to additional materials in my CPRA case, including a suppressed “binder” of 141 pages of campus police reports related to the Agu death — of which, according to the head of the county sheriff’s coroner bureau who closed the file, only a couple of dozen or so pages ever reached him.
The full transcripts of the Casey Batten and Thomas Beaver depositions were included in Concussion Inc.’s 2016 ebook, THE TED AGU PAPERS: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football. A second edition of the ebook, including new primary-source documents, is anticipated.
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