by Irvin Muchnick
New Jersey’s 12-person bipartisan House of Representatives delegation, led by Republican Chris Smith, has united to pressure Garden City Community College of Kansas to come clean about last summer’s exertional heat stroke (EHS) death, following a football practice, of 19-year-old Braeden Bradforth, who was from New Jersey.
Smith and the others are rightly calling on the college to commission an independent investigation by outside experts, modeled on that undertaken by the University of Maryland in the earlier 2018 EHS fatality of football player Jordan McNair. These were at least the 35th and 36th deaths this century during non-scrimmage, non-contact college football conditioning alone.
As a journalist who has been covering this cluster since 2001, when Northwestern University’s Rashidi Wheeler expired from an apparent asthma-aggravated attack in the suburban Chicago heat — an incident captured on what I call “the Rodney King video” of college football’s public health-menacing excesses — I don’t see the underlying problem as involving the specifics of EHS protocols or asthma of sickle cell trait-associated collapse, which are all among the various cited causes of death. The underlying problem, rather, is the commercial arms race of the college football industry, and the dangerous essence of football culture at all levels, even below the National Football League’s adult professional risk takers.
In the face of the cumulative evidence, yet another redundant investigation is inadequate. The only real answer would be a paradigm shift away from civil litigation and toward criminal prosecution of the coaches, trainers, doctors, and administrators who preside over needless loss of life, cover up its circumstances, and sign off on monetary settlements with victims’ families as a cost of doing business.
At Garden City, the head coach, Jeff Sims (now at Missouri Southern State University), initially misled the news media by putting out the story that Bradforth had expired, in “an act of God,” from a heart attack caused by a blood clot. The coroner, however, would unequivocally isolate EHS as the cause of death — an outcome experts call 100 percent preventable. The only thing the Garden City coaches and trainers needed to do was to immerse the stricken young athlete in a tub of ice when his symptoms emerged. Instead — as exposed by the emergency medical services narrative and even aspects of the college’s own skewed internal review — they doused the student-athlete with water after he was found unresponsive on campus, and waited up to 20 minutes before even calling 911.
In anticipation of a likely lawsuit by Bradforth’s mother, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, Garden City then erased campus surveillance video of the death. And the college walked back her scheduled meeting with the president, Ryan Ruda, by making it clear in advance that he would release no new information about the incident.
The known college football conditioning death total, almost certainly lower than the true toll because of lapses in reporting, comes from the published peer-reviewed research of University of Oklahoma head athletic trainer Scott Anderson. He decries what he calls the “Junction Boys” mentality of excess in college football conditioning, now a year-round and extreme part of a multibillion-dollar industry. Anderson took the term from a book about the extreme practices of the late legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant when he was at Texas A&M.
Anderson’s former colleague, retired Oklahoma football team physician Dr. E. Randy Eichner, another outspoken critic of conditioning excesses, has consulted in dozens of wrongful death lawsuits by families that have resulted in tens of millions of dollars of institutional liability. The Bradforth case seems poised to become another. What I challenge is whether these collective claims meaningfully change inhumane hyper-macho coach-driven training standards, which are integral to football from the pee-wee leagues on up.
A member of the New Jersey House delegation that joined Congressman Smith’s call for an independent investigation at Garden City is Frank Pallone, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone additionally has asked the Centers for Disease Control to improve public education about EHS. Here again, count me among the skeptics. The CDC is already a partner with the NFL (for which this government agency accepts monetary subsidies, which is accompanied by the league’s biased editorial guidance) in the so-called “Heads Up” campaign to help football players improve their tackling technique so as to reduce the risks of traumatic head injury. This campaign ignores what should be the CDC’s main emphasis, on the basic science of repeated concussive and sub-concussive hits — which convincingly establishes that football participation should be downsized, and in particular not be underwritten by our public school systems.
What the conditioning death syndrome also shows is that the focus on any particular aspect of the sport’s carnage, such as concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, while useful on the margins, comes nowhere close to full accounting of not only the sport’s deaths, but also its diminution of national male quality of life by contributing to domestic violence and other violent crime, and to causing declines in lifelong work productivity.
There’s a better way to find justice for the Braeden Bradforths. That is to hold coaches and administrators accountable for fostering a toxic culture — a phrase widely used in the McNair/Maryland story — and enabling reckless endangerment and manslaughter.
The sexual abuse scandals of the popular Olympics sports got a dose of the transition from civil to criminal with the indictment of the former president of Michigan State University, Lou Anna Simon, for covering up the long-known molestations of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. America’s most popular sport should be getting the same — not its existing public and media pass for the braining, maiming, and killing of a significant percentage of our legally non-consenting young male population in the name of mass entertainment.
I am in the third year of state public records act litigation against the University of California for internal documents in the 2014 conditioning drill death of football player Ted Agu from what was first ruled to be generic heart failure. A year later, during his parents’ lawsuit, which would result in a $4.75 million settlement, the coroner acknowledged that he had been wrong, changed the finding to a sickle cell trait collapse, and testified that the team physician had not shared the university’s knowledge that Agu was a trait carrier.
Garden City’s Braeden Bradforth cover-up, unlike UC’s, is playing out in the public spotlight in real time. This is an opportunity that should not be missed for taking overdue measure of football’s harm. The indifference of its profiting overseers is largely responsible for why this phenomenon persists. Putting those individuals in the dock is the best way to change the game.
Irvin Muchnick is the author of Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It.
Complete chronological headline links to Concussion Inc.’s coverage of the Braeden Bradforth story are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=13441.