Annals of Journalism, Pt. 1: Opinion Piece For Berkeley’s Daily Californian on UC’s Ted Agu Football Death Cover-Up, Scheduled For Publication Today, Was Killed at the Last Second … For Expressing an Opinion

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April 23, 2019
BREAKING: Congressman Smith Cancels Friday Meeting With Garden City Community College President and Braeden Bradforth’s Mother, After GCCC Lawyer Reneges on Meeting’s Terms
April 23, 2019
Follow @irvmuch on Twitter
April 23, 2019

Complete headline links to our series on the Ted Agu death cover-up (beginning November 2013 – before Agu’s death):

Today my op-ed article, crudely headlined by me “Evidence Points to Cover-Up in Circumstances of 2014 Cal Football Conditioning Death — Part of a New National Public Health Issue,” was scheduled to be published by the University of California-Berkeley’s independent campus newspaper, the Daily Californian.

But the piece got killed, for lame reasons I’ll explain here. Readers can decide for themselves whether they agree with me that this marks a new low in the local media’s enabling of the university’s cover-up of the circumstances of Ted Agu’s death from an exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait.

In a nutshell: The Daily Cal editors decided at the last second that they were afraid they could get sued for publishing my third-party opinion, already extensively documented throughout the piece, that the university cares more about money than it does about doing the right thing. So much for diversity of voices. So much for that quaint practice known as journalism.

Below, we’re publishing the full text of the version of the essay at the point when it was poised for publication and got deep-sixed. I’ll elaborate the full story.

Of course, the Agu cover-up also underlies my now two-year-old California Public Records Act case against the UC Regents in Alameda County Superior Court.

The article below was submitted to the Daily Cal on March 28. The opinion editor spent nearly two weeks failing to accept it, reject it, or even acknowledge receiving it. On April 9, four days after my fourth follow-up, which I disseminated widely to the publisher and all the top editors, the Daily Cal finally said the piece was being accepted for publication under the supervision of Elizabeth Neoman, an assistant opinion editor.

In the way of contemporary editing, Neoman and I then proceeded to grind on fact checks and tweaks via Google Docs. I am very familiar with the process and professional about it; I realize that no article published under the auspices of someone else makes its way into print immaculately. In this instance, I gave ground on numerous requests to tone down language or eliminate passages altogether — either for space or because they were deemed inflammatory or overly rhetorical. In addition, I laboriously shared the primary-source documentary backup that is well known to readers of Concussion Inc. The essay was slotted for the op-ed page of today’s edition of the Daily Cal.

But on Sunday afternoon Neoman emailed me: “I have looked over the libel concerns with the executive opinion editor. They said we cannot prove that the change in the medical examination was due to the call [to the coroner by team physician Dr. Casey Batten] and there are a few other things on the document that you should take a look at. I’m sorry about that.”

“It is still going into print,” Neoman cooed in another email 18 minutes later, “so don’t worry about that.”

What, me worry? I cheerfully ordered to the cutting-room floor “thanks to a corrupt push by the Cal football team physician.”

In looking at the final changes, however, I noticed that Neoman had also tampered with the last line of the essay. Weeks earlier, I had originally written, “Even at the world’s greatest public university, the football tail wags the dog.” Neoman had asked for something “less colloquial,” so I came back with, “At the world’s greatest public university, the commercial priorities of the football program obliterate education, morality, and other core missions.”

Now I saw that the editor was trying to slip a substitute clincher past me. I don’t have Neoman’s verbiage in front of me any more (though perhaps I could dredge it up if I were more adept at Google Docs technology). As we’ll see, she and I fully argued what I considered this unacceptable revision, so the exact language is insignificant for purposes of this report.

Basically, in my reading, the Daily Cal was attempting to bowdlerize my thesis by wimpifying it into something along the lines of, “UC Berkeley should give a higher priority to athlete safety.”

Well, athlete safety as defined by King Football is a fine cause. But it is not mine. My cause is public health and how the sports system seduces us into ravaging it by entertaining us to death. Here, the point of the essay was not, “Come on, folks, let’s all pull together now and make sure that in the future we all pay serious attention to the adage ‘safety first.’ After all, better safe than sorry!”

Rather, the point of the essay was and is that everything behind the UC-Ted Agu family settlement, and further information from my public records act case, raise serious questions of a cover-up that crossed over from civil to criminal. And guess what? I’m the author. I emailed Neoman, “In return for all the concessions I’ve made here, the Daily Cal owes me the last line in my own words…. If you can’t accommodate me, then please kill the piece.”

Neoman replied in part: “I’d love to have you include that in the last line, but it is implying that the university was prioritizing commercial profit which is why they allowed this to happen. Can you prove that this was financially motivated?”

I’ve got to admit that she had me there: I can’t actually prove that the campus store sold an extra three Cal Football sweatshirts in the week after the cover-up began. But what an absurd standard for an op-ed page. What is the point of having a newspaper, something with news pages or opinion pages, if you refuse to use them to challenge the stated and unstated values of the institutions you’re covering? Or at least give someone else, in the first person, a shot at it? Is this Berkeley or Pyongyang?

Neoman held fast. “I checked with the editor,” she emailed me on Monday morning, and “we cannot publish the piece. I am very sorry, but they said that the last line cannot go into print.”

In genteel language, I proceeded to tell the lot of Daily Cal pooh-bahs where they could shove their op-ed page.

Neoman tried to woo me back: “The problem with the last line is that implies intent, which the university could find grounds to sue us over.” (A lovely profile in caution, and one that demonstrates no understanding of the California statute sanctioning frivolous defamation claims that fall under the category known as “SLAPP”: strategic lawsuit against public participation.) The Daily Cal would still “be more than happy to publish your piece” if I would just refrain from making a “claim” about “the intentions of the people in charge of the football program at Berkeley.”

I advised Neoman to stop wasting bandwidth. And I wrote this post.

Next, I’ll republish my 2017 and 2018 op-eds for the Daily Cal, and I’ll publish a blank page to denote the newspaper’s censoring of this one.

Then I’ll go on to tell y’all the story of how the same piece hadn’t even gotten out of the gate at the San Francisco Chronicle, and why. After much prodding, the Chron‘s op-ed editor explained that they only have space for the important stuff, such as ruminations on how long San Francisco Giants president Larry Baer should be shamed for getting caught on TMZ having a fight with his wife.

I’m sure the parents and families and friends of the at least 36 kids who have dropped dead this century in non-contact college football conditioning drills could use the laugh.

Later still, we’ll have more on what I mean when I write that the Ted Agu death cover-up is a criminal matter.


Evidence Points to Cover-Up in Circumstances of 2014 Cal Football Conditioning Death — Part of a New National Public Health Issue

by Irvin Muchnick

The 36th and latest death this century in non-game, non-scrimmage, non-contact college football conditioning occurred last August. Despite its modest setting — a junior college in Kansas — the case of 19-year-old Braeden Bradforth has sparked national outrage. The head coach who supervised sprint drills in the summer heat and, allegedly, withheld water from his athletes, tried to spin Bradforth’s fatal collapse as a heart attack, but the autopsy would establish that it was exertional heatstroke.

The death of UC Berkeley football player Ted Agu on the Berkeley campus on February 7, 2014, from an exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait during an extreme drill directed by Damon Harrington, then the strength and conditioning assistant under then head coach Sonny Dykes, was just as bad as the Bradforth scenario. The case demands more serious attention by the Alameda County district attorney and state legislators. But it has gotten less attention — to the detriment of discussion of football’s safety at all levels of the sport and of the new focus on the pandemic of non-adult, non-professionals dropping dead just in practice.

The local and sports media are passive, and fans and apologists are inclined to turn the page after Agu’s parents and the UC Regents came to a $4.75 million settlement of the family’s wrongful death lawsuit in 2016.

Findings in my ongoing California Public Records Act litigation against the university for the release of internal files in the Agu matter, plus reporting at my website, show the full and awful dimensions of the story. I have touched on this topic in two previous essays for the Daily Californian.

Had the public been aware in real time that Agu expired from a sickling episode — not a coronary, as the Alameda County medical examiner originally found — then perhaps the Agu case would have made newspaper and TV headlines. That’s what happened last year in the scandal surrounding the death of Jordan McNair at the University of Maryland, which wound up claiming the jobs of the conditioning coach, the head coach and the school president.

I have been reporting the background of the Ted Agu death since three months before there was a Ted Agu death. On November 1, 2013, one UC Berkeley Cal player criminally battered another in an incident spurred by conditioning coach Harrington’s imposition of extra sets of punishment drills on all the players after the assault victim skipped their workout the day before. The district attorney “deferred” charges against the assailant.

Just days after the DA’s decision, Agu expired in a hill run-rope pull exercise not found in any legitimate training manual. A distraught whistleblower student-athlete was motivated to connect the dots and complain to campus police about what in the Maryland case would be called the football program’s “toxic culture.” Yet, as my reporting would establish in 2016, the campus police did not forward this report to the district attorney during the pendency of the assailant’s charges.

Depositions in the Agu family lawsuit, new internal university files released during my public records act case, and other records independently acquired from campus sources tell an even uglier story. And it is part of a pattern seen time and again in these avoidable college football conditioning deaths.

The first sentence of the first campus police incident report after Agu fell mentioned his “pre-existing medical condition.” The Berkeley Fire Department paramedics’ narrative noted “HISTORY OF SICKLE CELL.”

Sickle cell trait, which Agu had, is different than the better-known sickle cell disease, an acute blood disorder. Carriers of the trait, which is found in 1 in 12 African-Americans, can lead normal lives but require vigilant intervention in the face of sudden and potentially fatal attacks during extreme exertion. Agu had been tested for the trait, and the information had been disseminated to the UC Berkeley Cal coaching, training and medical staffs.

Knowing that sickling death would be perceived as more incendiary than a coronary episode, the university developed a public relations playbook that deflected, on “privacy” grounds, questions about the dead student-athlete’s medical history. Meanwhile, team physician Dr. Casey Batten — whether on his own or in coordination with others — made a highly irregular phone call to Dr. Thomas Beaver, then the chief county coroner, just hours after Beaver cut into Agu’s body. Batten strongly suggested to Beaver that Agu had succumbed to “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy”: generic heart failure.

Batten made no mention to Beaver of Agu’s sickle cell trait. And the campus police forwarded to the Alameda County sheriff’s office, which was collecting information to support the autopsy, only 29 of the 141 pages of a binder of reports that would become a focus of dispute in my public records act case. Medical examiner Beaver’s original report would cite hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

In the civil case a year later, Beaver admitted that he didn’t know about sickle cell, and took the almost unprecedented step of having the autopsy revised to reflect what was clearly a sickling death. (Cal’s head athletic trainer had told the first responders to look for rhabdomyolysis — a syndrome associated with sickling, not heart attacks.)

During his own deposition, Batten explained himself incoherently. Like just about everyone else associated with Agu’s death, Batten then “fell upward”; he is now a team physician for the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams.

Yes, football is a brutal sport. Completely avoidable deaths, however, demand accountability — criminal as well as civil.

The worst things, sexual abuse as well as death, can happen in our sports system at the finest institutions of higher learning: Michigan State, Penn State, Baylor. Now it has happened here, in California. At the world’s greatest public university, the commercial priorities of the football program obliterate education, morality, and other core missions.

Irvin Muchnick is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist and author. His most recent book is Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick