The family of Cal football player Ted Agu, who died after a team drill in 2014, and the University of California settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $4.75 million, bringing months of negotiations and litigation to a close, the two sides said Thursday.
Agu, a defensive lineman and premed student, died at age 21 shortly after an off-season conditioning workout outside Cal’s Memorial Stadium. His parents sued the university, saying their son should have never been placed in such a strenuous workout because he carried sickle cell trait, a blood abnormality that experts believe can lead to death under extreme exertion. Cal doctors and coaches knew of Agu’s condition since he redshirted his freshman year in 2010.
The settlement comes nearly three months after the university admitted liability for the death. In court papers, UC attorneys said that negligence by Cal officials was “a substantial factor” in leading to Agu’s death and that no other person or entity, including Agu himself, was responsible.
“The University is glad to have reached a resolution with the Agu family, as it has been a difficult process for everyone involved,” Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, said in a statement.
Beyond the monetary provision that will be paid to Agu’s family, the deal guarantees health and safety reforms for Cal athletics, some of which campus officials began on their own volition following Agu’s death Feb. 7, 2014. UC officials said they are in the process of sharing the new standards with athletic departments at other UC campuses, but that the settlement doesn’t require their implementation beyond Berkeley.
Change in rules
With the settlement, coaches will not be able to use “high-risk physical activity” as a punishment, and superiors will review workout and conditioning plans. Under the deal, coaches and team doctors will also increase their education of sickle cell trait and the medical complications that can stem from it.
“We were never going to accept just money,” said Steve Yerrid, one of the attorneys who represented the Agu family. “The most unnatural act in the world is for a parent to bury their child.”
The settlement guarantees that a memorial display for Agu in the Cal football team’s home locker room will be permanently kept intact. The pact also solidifies a practice Cal had implemented following Agu’s death: conducting workouts only when team staffers have a direct line of sight to athletes.
Teammates said in depositions and interviews with The Chronicle that, on the morning Agu died, he struggled for an extended period of time and collapsed on multiple occasions without trainers or coaches coming to his assistance.
The accounts offered by former football players in the depositions stood in stark contrast with what UC Berkeley officials told the media and the coroner’s office.
Teammates said that they were told to run up and down a steep asphalt hill 10 times while holding a rope together and that they had never before done the workout. They testified that Agu was showing visible difficulty in completing the drill, falling to his knees several times before he collapsed into a fetal position halfway up the hill on his final lap.
Cal officials, meanwhile, initially told the public that the workout was routine and that they came to Agu’s assistance as soon as he started struggling.
Cause of death
Players’ accounts prompted a rare amendment to the official cause of death, from a common enlarged heart condition — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — to “exercise collapse associated with sickle cell trait,” with “cardiac hypertrophy” listed as a secondary condition. Attorneys for the family contended during litigation that the medical examiner’s office hadn’t initially received all relevant police and medical records from UC Berkeley.
“If Ted Agu’s family had not gotten this, it would’ve been this unfortunate story of a student athlete dying of some heart problem,” Yerrid said. “That would have been the end of the story.”
Deaths from sickling complications are not fully understood by the medical community, but experts say they are largely preventable.
Dr. Randy Eichner, an authority on exertional sickling and former doctor for the University of Oklahoma football team, said universal screening for the trait, combined with adherence to NCAA guidelines, can prevent athlete deaths. He pointed out that in the 10 years before screening became mandatory for Division I schools, there were 10 deaths from exercise collapse associated with sickle cell trait. In the six years since, there’s been just one — that of Agu — meaning, he said, the screening had a statistically significant impact.
Eichner, with whom the Agu family’s attorneys consulted during the litigation, said Thursday he was hopeful other schools will take notice of the reforms agreed to in the settlement. Still, he said, more specifics are needed about the reforms, particularly how conditioning workouts will be reviewed.
“The drills have become too much, too fast, too long,” he said. “Why are lives being lost preparing for the game?”