In the predawn hours of Feb. 7, 2014, a pre-med student named Ted Agu, a son of Nigerian immigrants and a walk-on player for the University of California’s football team, the Golden Bears, dropped dead during a team conditioning exercise that involved sprinting up and down a campus hillside multiple times while pulling a thick rope, together with a group of other players.
Amidst the subsequent sentimental gestures honoring a young man who had died “doing what he loved” — while teammates and coaches issued tributes to Agu’s intelligence, compassion and dedication; while Cal paused other campus activities to stage a memorial service; while a plaque with his likeness was installed at Memorial Stadium — what is arguably the world’s most famous public university proceeded, on a different track, to do something quite different. It engineered what could only be termed a cover-up of the cause of Agu’s death. Moreover, the cover-up succeeded.
We’ll get to the elements of the cover-up in a moment. First, it’s important to note that offseason conditioning drill deaths of non-professional football players — who are often minors and thus, by definition, not legally consenting — tell their own collective and gruesome story. This is a vastly underreported aspect of football’s overall vastly underreported public health crisis.