by Irvin Muchnick
Even during the pandemic, Concussion Inc. has endeavored to continue nudging forward the top stories we’ve broken over the years, to fitful mainstream attention. One is the end game of the federal government’s reconsideration of the immigration status of permanent resident alien George Gibney, the quasi-fugitive former Irish Olympic swim coach and the most notorious at-large sex criminal in the history of global sports. Another is the ever-mounting evidence that the late WWE star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka got away with murdering a woman in 1983.
This reporter’s California Public Records Act (CPRA) lawsuit against the University of California, for internal documents in the cover-up of the 2014 sickle cell trait attack death of UC Berkeley football player Ted Agu in an offseason conditioning drill, likewise has limped along. But court dockets have slowed during the recent shelter-in-place regime.
The case seems to be approaching a conclusion in Alameda County Superior Court, and I’ll be comprehensively resetting it soon. For now, know that, most recently, Judge Jeffrey S. Brand (Berkeley undergrad and law alum) has done it again. In a ruling that reached new levels of backbends and incomprehensibility, Brand decided that a string of administrators’ emails discussing the Agu death — circulated just prior to release of the county coroner’s autopsy findings, which later had to be revised after the university was exposed for having withheld known medical information — is protected from public release under attorney-client privilege.
This even though Cal Athletics’ $300,000 man, then deputy athletic director Solly Fulp, had already forwarded all these messages to his non-university-affiliated father. Fulp then testified under oath, in our deposition of him, that he didn’t remember sending them or why he sent them.
Judge Brand stepped right up to help: Fulp must have been engaged in “intra-family” communications whose implied essence, the judge divined, was “Dad, this why I’ve been so busy at work” (sic). It’s all still deeply confidential!
Despite the fact that the court has not managed to bring itself to rule against UC in a single motion across our more than three years of litigation, the CPRA case has resulted in the daylighting of hundreds of pages of new documents, many unredacted and others partially redacted. These emails and reports illuminate at least two new narrative threads of the Agu death cover-up, as choreographed by the campus police, and by then football team physician Dr. Casey Batten and then football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington (on the staff of then head football coach Sonny Dykes) and others.
In a wrongful death settlement, the UC Regents paid the Agu family $4.75 million to go away.
Unfortunately, not too many people care much about it — least of all the journalists at the market’s newspaper of record, the San Francisco Chronicle. To my knowledge, not a single sports columnist there has written a single word about the Agu death, much less an in-depth analysis and commentary about the Agu death cover-up, in the more than six years since the incident.
At this moment of national reflection on American society’s systemic devaluation of black lives, I have remarked ruefully to friends that the publicists of FootballWorld would have been harder on Harrington if he had been caught using the n-word than they ever will be over proof that this maniac drill instructor engaged in negligent homicide of a young African-American man.
Which takes me back — finally — to the headline at the top of this article. I wonder what would have happened if the Agu death had been associated with “noose” imagery, such as that in evidence in the current embarrassment of the NASCAR racing circuit over the apparent racist harassment of its only black driver, Bubba Wallace?
Well, it turns out that the Ted Agu story had a bit of that, too, even if I wrongly downplayed it at the time in the course of my global ridicule of the Chronicle’s tepid coverage.
Two years ago, I wrote that one of the telltale signs of this inadequacy occurred in the summer of 2016: “Armed with the latest drib and drab from the Berkeley Faculty Association — a dissident professors’ group shadowing the official and less active Faculty Senate — the news hawks reported that Cal football practice had included a drill called ‘the Noose.’ The implication was that this drill was extreme and, furthermore, perhaps carried connotations of racial lynching. In fact, the Noose is a fairly standard football practice drill dressed up in football-dumb terminology.”
This was in a small portion of a long essay under the title “Do As I Say, Not As I Do: San Francisco Chronicle Reminds Us, ‘Good Journalism Is Vital in Sports, Too’,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=13203.
(Commenting about the same subject, a former Cal walk-on player named Donovan Walker had written: “The writing on a ‘noose group’ is absolutely false. We never had a ‘noose group.’ We did have a ‘noose drill’ which our receivers would take part in prior to practice and games. It’s a common football drill[….] The coaches stopped referring to it as such after a player, who was not a receiver or ever took part in the drill, complained about it in the locker room prior to a game, several weeks into the season.”)
But in 2020, maybe the joke is on me. Others denounce the very introduction of the ugly imagery of the noose in the beloved sport of football. And they’re right.
Now it would be nice if people would start talking about that other thing. You know, mere death and the cover-up thereof.