The Daily Californian reported my lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents, under the state Public Records Act, for hitherto unreleased emails and other internal documents authored by university officials in relation to the 2014 death of Cal football player Ted Agu and to its precursor incident, a 2013 teammate-on-teammate altercation. Both events occurred on the watch of Damon Harrington, former head coach Sonny Dykes’ then-assistant for strength and conditioning.
A UC Berkeley spokesperson called my lawsuit “without merit,” but on a purely technical level, I doubt that the courts will agree. My complaint meticulously documents months of delay, obfuscation and manipulation on the part of the Public Records Act compliance office. For example, legitimate student privacy exemptions should be met with targeted redactions, not with wholesale withholding of pertinent documents. My litigation arrives at a moment when the California Newspaper Publishers Association has renewed efforts to get the state legislature to close loopholes in the act that impede access to public agency records and enable such nontransparency.
And, of course, the quest to get to the bottom of the Ted Agu story is no purely technical matter; it is an emblematic, if still largely ignored, illustration of the abuses of the college football industry at the world’s greatest public university.
When a scandal-plagued football program is the tail-wagging dog at red-state institutions such as Penn State University and Baylor University, the dynamics are familiar. When the same thing is shown to be happening at UC Berkeley, the invitation to take a closer look at this sport’s fraught future intensifies.
In 2001, when I was covering a parallel football player death in a “voluntary” offseason conditioning drill — that of Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern University — I was struck by how the Chicago news media at least gave scrutiny of an iconic local institution the old college try. With Agu here, by contrast, it has been once-over-lightly. This tableau reveals much about football’s evolving stranglehold on American life.
To my knowledge, I am the only journalist who has examined in any depth the actions of former head team physician of Cal football Casey Batten (now with the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League) in lobbying the Alameda County medical examiner for a snap finding of generic heart failure in the Agu autopsy — a finding later, and almost unprecedentedly, revised after a deposition testimony in the Agu family’s civil lawsuit against the university revealed that Batten had concealed from the coroner the team medical staff’s full knowledge that Agu was a carrier of sickle cell disease trait. (The university also had held back from the county sheriff and the medical examiner more than 100 pages of records.)
When the lawsuit settled for $4.75 million in taxpayer-subsidized money, no one seemed to be asking aloud why Sonny Dykes was simultaneously being awarded with a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract extension. (Dykes’ recent departure had nothing to do with what had been, essentially, a negligent homicide under the direction of his strength coach’s “toughness culture change”; it had everything to do with the Dykes regime’s failure to win more games and fill more seats of the expensive white elephant-renovated Memorial Stadium.)
I have extensive and successful experience in public information litigation. In a case in federal court involving another sports world scandal, I recently prevailed against the Department of Homeland Security; the government has appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Readers interested in learning more about the Ted Agu death and the ongoing proceedings are invited to follow my work at http://ConcussionInc.net or in my 2016 e-book “The Ted Agu Papers,” the royalties of which are being donated to sickle cell research and education.
Irvin Muchnick is the author, most recently, of “Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It.”