Years later, questions remain regarding football player Ted Agu’s death

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Nishali Naik/Staff

On March 20, 2014 — six weeks after Cal football player Ted Agu dropped dead on a campus hillside in the early morning — Berkeley campus police Chief Margo Bennett emailed John Wilton, then the vice chancellor for administration and finance, with the warning not to share with others “the documents I gave you yesterday. … The case is not available for a PRA request and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Bennett added, “I am fairly confident that Sandy has not had access to this level of detail.”

The “case,” for all intents and purposes, could be seen as a negligent homicide. Agu had perished during a bizarre punishment drill directed by then-head football coach Sonny Dykes’ strength and conditioning assistant Damon Harrington. Ultimately, settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit by Agu’s family would cost $4.75 million in taxpayer- and tuition-subsidized funds.

“Sandy” in Bennett’s email is Sandy Barbour, who, like many in this sorry episode’s cast of characters, subsequently “fell upward” in the football industry: At the time the athletic director at Cal, she is now athletic director at Penn State University.

As for “PRA” — that stands for Public Records Act. The document from which I’m quoting is one of what I suspect is the unnaturally sparse number thus far released in the course of my California Public Records Act, or CPRA, lawsuit, filed a year ago with the Alameda County Superior Court, to daylight what top administrators were contemporaneously saying and doing regarding how to handle the Agu scandal.

Last year, I wrote about my suit in The Daily Californian. I’m back with an update. Scrutiny of the UC’s actions on Agu fits squarely in the tradition of uncovering sports program death and sex crimes at places such as Penn State University, Michigan State University, Baylor University and the University of Central Florida. Unfortunately, the major news media outlets in California are asleep at the switch on this one. Most notably, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Agu around the edges but punted on core known information surrounding the out-of-control Dykes-Harrington regime.

Most recently, the UC made the preposterous assertion that it cannot be compelled to share with the court the number of documents it continues to withhold or even a ballpark range of that number.

The truth is out there, and I’ll find it. And we already know quite a bit. Discovery and deposition testimony in the Agu family suit made it crystal clear, for example, that team physician Casey Batten concealed from the county medical examiner, who was conducting the autopsy, the Cal medical and coaching staff’s knowledge that Agu carried the sickle cell trait, which made him uniquely susceptible to a sudden life-threatening exertional attack. (Like Barbour, Batten has done OK for himself; he is now with the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.)

Also abundantly evident is that the university withheld from the county sheriff’s office, which was assembling evidence on behalf of the medical examiner, more than 100 related pages gathered by the campus police and perhaps other campus offices. Confronted with the hidden evidence, the medical examiner took the rare step of revising the autopsy findings, which originally had ascribed Agu’s untimely demise to generic heart failure.

Shortly after Agu died, Cal commissioned a strength and conditioning program “review” that was downright laughable. Internal university documents show that the main concerns of Jeffrey Tanji of UC Davis, principal author of the report, appeared to be whether he could conduct all the interviews in a single day and have his wife join him at the Claremont hotel, where he was being put up. In 2016, dissident faculty and media reports about the obviously flimsy and conflict-laden review by Tanji and his co-author, athletic trainer John Murray, forced then-chancellor Nicholas Dirks to commission a second review. Two years later, remarkably, that report still has not been released; campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof recently told me it is now scheduled for publication by the end of this month.

Another important angle is the campus police interview, shortly after Agu’s death, of a backup quarterback who is the whistleblower of this story.

The whistleblower said he had been counseled to talk to the cops by then-deputy athletic director Solly Fulp and by then-vice chancellor Wilton. Fulp is another funny one. After the Agu scandal blew over, Fulp got shuffled from the Cal Bears sports administration to a newly created central position selling corporate sponsorships, which initially paid him at least $230,000 annually, in addition to a $50,000 signing bonus plus perks. And last year, Fulp pushed his way through the revolving door of the executive suite of the Learfield company, where he now directs corporate sponsorships of college programs across the country.

I guess that’s showbiz. But it’s also why my fine attorney, Roy Gordet, and I are going nowhere in our slow-grinding CPRA case to get to the rotten bottom of the Ted Agu story.

Irvin Muchnick’s most recent book is “Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It.” His interim ebook on the Agu scandal, “The Ted Agu Papers: A Black Life That Mattered — And the Secret History of a Covered-Up Death in University of California Football,” is available on Amazon Kindle; all ebook royalties are being donated to sickle cell trait research and education.