by Irvin Muchnick
As we reported on the run late yesterday, the big news is that DJ Durkin is out as head football coach at the University of Maryland. To be sure, the rough justice in accountability for the conditioning drill death of Durkin’s player Jordan McNair earlier this year was slow and less than coherent. Even so, it’s a huge step in hopes for loosening the death grip of King Football on the priorities of our public institutions of higher education.
For Concussion Inc.’s purposes, the Maryland scenario offers unmistakable parallels to our current California Public Records Act quest for release of 141 pages of Berkeley campus police files in the 2014 death of the University of California’s Ted Agu, which occurred on the watch of then football coach Sonny Dykes and his strength and conditioning assistant Damon Harrington.
The only real difference: The story of the criminal negligence behind the McNair fatality was broken by ESPN’s Outside the Lines and reinforced by HBO’s Real Sports — whereas the deeper implications of the Agu story have been spread (so far) only by this website with its comparatively small readership.
To review on Durkin, Maryland responded to the blowback from ESPN’s details on the McNair death, plus evidence of a “toxic culture” in the Terrapins’ football conditioning program, by commissioning two independent investigations. The second came out this week. The report chastised Maryland football for “dysfunction” in the athletic department and football program. However, the board of regents, with stunning tone-deafness, chose not to hold Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans responsible.
I have no inside knowledge of yesterday’s dynamics. But the best guess is this: The immediately announced retirement of university president William Loh, who had set the right course of contrition from the beginning, including admission of Maryland’s “legal and moral responsibility,” was in protest against what the regents didn’t do. Students on campus and state politicians expressed their shock and outrage. Crucially, several members of Durkin’s team walked out upon his return to the locker room.
By evening, the regents had reversed themselves; Durkin was out, along with strength and conditioning assistant Rick Court, whose contract had been bought out over the summer.
This outcome isn’t perfect — Durkin and Court should have been fired for cause. And what about AD Evans? But it’s a major improvement over the ongoing cover-up of Ted Agu’s death in Berkeley. That one clocks in at four years and nine months, and counting.
That’s why Concussion Inc.’s motion before Judge Jeffrey Brand, for which a hearing is scheduled the day before Thanksgiving, is so important. McNair died of heat stroke. Agu died of an exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait — after the Alameda County medical examiner, having been misled by Cal football team physician Casey Batten, initially and erroneously ruled the cause of death to be generic heart failure.
Batten’s clear failures to uphold both the Hippocratic Oath and basic decency, whether institutionally coordinated or not, represented just one layer of Cal’s misfeasance. The university cover-up was pierced — but not fully and essentially exposed — by the Agu family’s $4.75 million wrongful death lawsuit settlement in 2016. But the public record has yet to display the dimensions of the same “toxic culture” evident in Maryland. The table of contents of the Berkeley campus police’s 141 pages of reports and supplementals, which I have acquired and published, shows that it almost certainly includes whistleblower testimony on the “code red” criminal assault, three months prior to Agu’s death, by one player against another, at the instigation of conditioning coach Harrington.
In our Public Records Act case, the UC regents have only very recently acknowledged that these 141 pages of police reports, which are indispensable to continuing public discourse on the Agu cover-up and on football conditioning deaths in general, even exist. (A university lawyer prefers to call these collected reports a “binder”; in our lawsuit, we show that in 2014 the campus police chief, Margo Bennett, emailed a senior vice chancellor what are likely some of these disputed documents, with directions to hold them close to the vest because “The case [sic] is not available for a [Public Records Act] request and I’d like to keep it that way.”)
Damon Harrington and Sonny Dykes, in contrast with Maryland’s Court and Durkin, never got dismissed for their part in killing Ted Agu. Harrington and Dykes now hold the same jobs at, respectively, Grambling State and Southern Methodist. Sandy Barbour, the athletic director who presided over the Agu death and cover-up, is now AD at Penn State. Disgraced team physician Batten is now in Los Angeles, on the medical staff of the National Football League’s Rams.