SERIES TO DATE
“‘Newsletter of Intent,’ Covering College Sports Reform, Has New Article About Our Work and Public Records Act Litigation in Cal’s Ted Agu Football Death Cover-Up,” December 3, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14100
“What Do I Mean By the ‘Cover-Up’ in the 2014 Death of University of California Football’s Ted Agu? As We Approach a Key Public Records Act Hearing on Sweeping Secrecy Claims, Let’s Count the Ways,” December 5, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14103
by Irvin Muchnick
Six years after the incident, Concussion Inc. remains the only outlet to name the player, J.D. Hinnant, who jumped and battered into the Alta Bates Hospital emergency room a Cal Golden Bears teammate, Fabiano Hale, on November 1, 2013, in retribution for Hale’s having skipped a conditioning drill.
Hale’s absence had prompted Damon Harrington, the strength and conditioning assistant under then head football coach Sonny Dykes, to impose extra punishment drill sets on the players present and to instruct them to hold accountable, “by any means necessary,” those who were absent. Harrington punctuated this directive by slamming a fist into the palm of his other hand. If you’ve seen the military justice movie A Few Good Men, you’ll get the idea.
The ostensible reason that the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, never named Hinnant was that he was not convicted of a crime. I have a different standard. There was a clear narrative of the assault, in police reports and other accounts, for which Hinnant ultimately got excused with the wrinkle of “deferred” prosecution; he agreed to campus disciplinary measures, likely after Hale’s family, for whatever reason, expressed no interest in throwing the criminal book at Hinnant.
Publishing the name of the assailant was never central to my reporting of the incident. But I saw no reason to withhold it, either, especially after the Chronicle and others continued to name only the victim. What I sensed, I think correctly, was that this and similar discretionary journalistic calls betrayed a larger tendency to swallow and regurgitate the institution’s versions of events. In turn, this translated to reducing, rather than enhancing, public understanding of what was going on through that period of University of California-Berkeley football.
Of course, the names of the student-athletes are not what this story is about. It’s about the conditioning coach, Harrington, who was never held to account. And it’s about the culture of football, which was and remains lethal.
It’s also about how Cal, in its management of the incident, showed the world its full cover-up playbook, both before and after the university realized it connected to a second incident: a wrongful death attaching to a multimillion-dollar liability.
On November 9, 2013, the Chronicle reported that Lieutenant Marc DeCoulode of the Berkeley campus police “said there was no evidence that hazing was involved” in the player-on-player assault “or that Cal head coach Sonny Dykes ‘had any knowledge of this.’”
Left unclear in this story were both what qualified DeCoulode to be Dykes’s spokesperson and what “this” was.
A campus police report — released by the university to Concussion Inc. in 2017 under the Public Records Act after a long delay, and months after the same document had been given to the campus newspaper the Daily Californian — showed that one of the football assistant coaches, Pierre Ingram, told an officer he was “concerned about the players being distracted by an investigation the night before a game.”
For that game the next day, J.D. Hinnant was in uniform. So part of the “this” of which the campus police lieutenant thought Dykes did not have “any knowledge,” perhaps, was why the player was allowed to dress despite being the only suspect in an assault investigation.
Three months later, on February 7, 2014, Ted Agu died during Harrington’s controversial offseason conditioning drill. Later installments in this series will deal with other prongs of the cover-up. One will document the university’s knowledge that Agu was a sickle cell trait carrier, combined with team physician Dr. Casey Batten’s lobbying of the Alameda County medical examiner for an autopsy finding of a simple coronary episode. Another installment will develop why I believe the Chronicle’s failure to report what it already knew about Cal’s manipulation of this entire process is probably the single biggest reason for the public’s indifference to the Agu death cover-up.
For now, let’s carry forward to the point where what had been a marginally defensible lack of a meaningful record of the Hinnant-Hale “altercation” became an indefensible one. That point was Agu’s death, which motivated a conscience-stricken student-athlete, Joey Mahalic, to come forward.
In depositions preceding the Agu family’s $4.75 million settlement of their lawsuit against the UC Regents, a number of players gave eyewitness accounts of the fatal conditioning drill that dramatically diverged from those of the training and coaching staffs. Teammates described Agu collapsing multiple times, not once — a gradual descent indicative of an exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait (ECAST), not hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).
But something else was also bothering Mahalic, a third-string quarterback: the taunting, verbally coarse, and unsafe “toughness” culture of Harrington’s strength and conditioning regime. Mahalic explicitly linked the “Code Red” attack on Hale by Hinnant to the inattention to Agu as he sagged toward death.
Mahalic privately aired his concerns with his father, a former National Football League player. Drew Mahalic advised Joey to tell people at Cal. Joey confided in Bob Jacobsen, a physics professor who was the football team faculty adviser. Jacobsen sent Mahalic to Solly Fulp, the deputy athletic director. Fulp sent Mahalic to John Wilton, a vice chancellor. Ultimately, on March 19, 2014, Mahalic was interviewed by two campus cops, including Lieutenant DeCoulode.
Remembering the aftermath of Harrington’s doubled-down punishment drills for the non-traveling squad back on the previous October 31, in the session Fabiano Hale had missed, the police report of the interview summarized part of what Mahalic testified to with this passage:
“Coach HARRINGTON told the players they needed to punish the player (Referring to Hill [sic]) and that it was on them to take care of it. As Coach HARRINGTON was addressing the players, he was clinching his fists together and hitting his other hand while saying ‘By any means necessary’. That same night, there were a group of football players out, ‘Hunting’ for HILL.”
(The police report of this interview is part of a secret 141-page binder of campus police materials. In Concussion Inc.’s Public Records Act case, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Brand ruled earlier this year that the university did not have to release the binder because it is covered by an exemption for police criminal investigative records. Separately, I have acquired and published some of the 141 pages, which were leaked to me by campus sources. A transcription of the recording of the Mahalic interview is at http://muchnick.net/mahalictopolice.pdf.)
At the time of the interview, the district attorney had just decided to defer the criminal charge against Hinnant; it was a kind of pre-prosecution probation. Ultimately, the charge would be expunged.
Two years later, after becoming aware of Mahalic’s statements to the cops, I asked the district attorney’s office whether the campus police had forwarded this interview and the accompanying information. The interview clearly had bearing on an investigation that was at least technically still active.
The DA said no: they knew nothing of the Mahalic account.
NEXT: Dr. Batten and Cal made sure the county sheriff and its coroner’s office were in the dark about Agu’s sickle cell trait — and the campus police department aided their concealment.
Comprehensive headline links to our six years of Ted Agu death coverage: https://concussioninc.net/?p=10877