UC admits negligence on its part as factor in campus football player Ted Agu’s death

Katherine Chen/File

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The University of California admitted Jan. 25 that negligence on its part was a substantial factor in the death of former Cal football player Ted Agu.

The issue of whether the university had any responsibility in Agu’s death during an offseason workout came about when depositions in a lawsuit filed by Agu’s parents — Ambrose and Emilia Agu — alleged that information regarding the former walk-on’s medical history was withheld from the Alameda County coroner’s office by campus officials, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

“They were denying all responsibility and (saying) that they did everything they could,” said Brian Panish, an attorney representing the Agu family. “It was a strategic decision to admit liability to prevent all this information from coming out to reduce the financial responsibility of the university and the regents.”

Agu died Feb. 7, 2014 when the team participated in a drill during which the players pulled a rope up and down a hill near Memorial Stadium. The 21-year-old was going uphill when he allegedly collapsed and was then assisted downhill.

Agu had the sickle cell trait, or SCT, which often leads to collapses that can be incorrectly identified as a heart condition problem. The medical examiner first classified Agu’s death this way, citing the cause of death as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The cause of death was later changed in October when evidence was re-examined and determined as being associated with Agu’s SCT. The original examiner claims he never received information on the SCT from the campus.

The head football trainer at the time, Robert Jackson, was on scene and in his deposition claimed he told the team to stop. Many depositions, including those from players that were present when the events occured, offer differing testimonies, with some stating that Jackson allegedly failed to come over when Agu collapsed.

“If anyone in America should know what to do when a sickling event occurs, it’s him,” Panish said. “He didn’t take action to save Mr. Agu’s life, it was an easily preventable death, and the University of California is responsible for it.”

This was the second time in Jackson’s career that a player died under his supervision — the first time occurring while he was a trainer at the University of Central Florida in 2008. Jackson remained on the Cal Athletics staff nearly two years after Agu’s death as an associate athletic trainer for the men’s and women’s track and field teams after he was moved from the football program, but has since left the school on his own accord, according to a campus spokesperson.

Since Agu’s death, the campus has implemented several new protocols and is in the process of phasing in several others. These measures include mandating EKGs for all incoming student-athletes, stopping the use of “high-risk physical activity” as a form of punishment and requiring that all Cal Athletics workouts — with some exceptions — be structured so the student-athletes are directly visible to either strength and conditioning staff or sports medicine staff, according to documents from Cal Athletics.

“It is important to note that prior to and since this tragedy occurred, we have reviewed and will continue to review and improve all of our protocols and procedures to make sure that we fully comply with recognized standards of care and in fact go beyond them,” the campus said in a statement.

By declining to contest liability, the university has focused its efforts on allocating “appropriate compensation” to Agu’s family. The university believes it is the “most responsible way in which to balance the university’s obligations to the family and its obligations as a steward of public funds.”

According to Panish, the Agu family hopes that the lawsuit forces the university to adopt revised procedures that will prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future.

A jury trial is currently set for April for the lawsuit. Despite the university acknowledging its liability, there is no guarantee that a settlement will be reached before that date.

Contact Alaina Getzenberg and Hooman Yazdanian at [email protected].