by Irvin Muchnick
Perhaps stung by the criticism that ensued after the revelation that its $100,000 “independent investigation” of the August 1, 2018, Braeden Bradforth death, following the first practice of the season under then head football coach Jeff Sims, would be run by its own insurance lawyers, Garden City Community College (GCCC) has announced that Dr. Rod Walters will lead the probe.
Walters directed the University of Maryland’s investigation into the circumstances of the death earlier last year, also from exertional heat stroke (EHS), of football player Jordan McNair. Ultimately, media and public outrage over the McNair incident cost the jobs of Maryland’s president, head football coach, and conditioning assistant. So the Walters resume certainly has that success going for it. However, nothing else about the background of his hire inspires confidence. Indeed, behind-the-scenes aspects raise red flags.
In the end, Walters’ experience will translate to nothing at Garden State if the lead investigator proceeds to be guided by the whispers in his ear from the college’s mouthpieces to the effect that the Bradforth scenario turns on the question of whether the cause of death was even EHS in the first place. Right now this seems to be the institution’s precise strategy. It has been the GCCC playbook from the start.
The first-day spin by coach Sims — which initially put the national media, including Sports Illustrated, off the scent — was that Bradforth had succumbed due to “an act of God” that brought about a blood clot leading to a heart attack. There is no evidence of such a finding in either the hospital records or the Finney County (Kansas) coroner’s autopsy report. Let’s repeat for emphasis: zero evidence. The autopsy, released in November, could not have been more clear or thorough in determining that it was an EHS episode. Experts like Dr. Randy Eichner, the retired football team doctor at the University of Oklahoma, say fatal EHS should simply never happen. Full stop.
But that hasn’t stopped the spread of misinformation suggesting the contrary, in what campus sources confirm is a calculated campaign. The thin reed on which the campaign is leaning is that the emergency room doctors didn’t take Bradforth’s rectal temperature — a basic step had they been looking for EHS.
Here’s what the GCCC apologists leave out: The ER personnel were misled by the coaches about the setting and cause of Bradforth’s collapse. This is what a diligent examination of the record by Walters will show. Such an examination would include on-the-record statements of teammates about the hydration-withholding practices of the coaches. It would also include the report of the 911 paramedics that Bradforth had been ordered to be doused with water before they arrived to rush him, near death, to St. Catherine Hospital.
For purposes of determining why he was unresponsive, whether you want to call it a triage diagnosis or a postmortem forensic pathology finding, you don’t even need to address the scores of minutes during which the GCCC coaching, training, and medical staffs lollygagged after the 19-year-old student-athlete was stricken. But there’s that evidence, too, and it’s just as damning or worse than any Sims-influenced omission of the taking of Bradforth’s rectal temperature in the ER.
Going back to Dr. Rod Walters, his position in the upcoming investigation is neither good nor bad. It’s just sort of there. What will be good or bad is the work product. In my decades of covering these stories, I’ve learned that the single most important factor in holding the institution to account for the latest avoidable death in college football conditioning drills — there have been at least 36 since 2000 — is the intensity and immediacy of media coverage.
The coverage of Jordan McNair at Maryland was in-depth and in real time from the get-go, with ESPN deciding to go with the narrative of a “toxic culture” under the head coach, DJ Durkin, and his conditioning assistant, Rick Court. In response, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, almost immediately articulated legal and moral responsibility, and he would essentially fall on his sword after the Walters-led investigation confirmed the sequence of life-dismissive events by the school’s agents.
By contrast, the 2014 sickle cell trait-associated death of Ted Agu in Berkeley, though just as bad, is now a cover-up extending into its sixth year — also the third of my ongoing state public records act lawsuit against the University of California for hidden internal documents. Agu has not gotten traction in the national conversation about football deaths, as a consequence of the halfway (at best) coverage, at the time the story broke, by the San Francisco Chronicle, whose reporters already had in front of them all the elements pointing to the manipulation of the coroner by the Cal football team physician, Dr. Casey Batten, and to the same “toxic culture,” under then head coach Sonny Dykes and conditioning assistant Damon Harrington, that would be evident in the McNair case. (Why Batten, now with the Los Angeles Rams, is still licensed to practice medicine is a mystery.)
The Bradforth case is playing out somewhere in between Maryland and Cal: The national media jumped in, after a fashion, but most of a year late.
Admirably, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey assembled a coalition of politicians to pressure GCCC to start doing the right thing. But there are limits to what politicians will say; they don’t want to come off as anti-football ideologues. On Friday, Smith put out a statement calling the hire of Dr. Walters to lead the investigation “a step in the right direction.”
From where I sit, it’s a step, all right — but in what direction? Walters must demonstrate that he is not susceptible to a rearguard action, by the very institution paying for his services, to muddy the professional autopsy work that is the very foundation of this investigation. The finding of exertional heat stroke in the death of Braeden Bradforth is clear as water.
Complete chronological headline links to Concussion Inc.’s coverage of the Braeden Bradforth story are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=13441.