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Cal Football’s S&C Scandal: The Intersection of Sports & Society

NCAA Football: Arizona State at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Chronicle did some interesting and, at times, terrible reporting on a variety of issues at Cal’s Football Program under Sonny Dykes and S&C coach Damon Harrington. It touches on a number of intersecting issues that highlight football's normative culture struggling to explain itself against the backdrop of a society that has shifted in its own assumptions and beliefs. It also highlights the tragic consequences of ignorance in a young player's death.

The main issues are focused around what Cal's critics contend are: 1. abusive S&C practices that incited teammate violence and 2. reckless disregard and ignorance that led to the death of DE Ted Agu in a conditioning drill in 2014. The Chronicle also sprinkled in some red meat - including a suggestion of racial insensitivity from Cal’s coaching staff and some ready-made quotes from a handful of the same professors who appear to show up in every article the Chronicle does highlighting the contradictions between university culture and big time athletics.

Who Ordered The Code Red?

While the Chronicle's reports of Harrington's punitive depredations seem scandalous or out-of-line, Damon Harrington strikes me as a fairly typical college S&C coach struggling in a different time and place.

“As soon as Harrington got to Cal, it was all about, ‘this area is so soft.’ He would say that we’re at a disadvantage being in Berkeley because of the kind of people that are around us,” Mahalic told detectives.

He said Harrington required “toughness workouts” for some players on Friday mornings that turned into “torture workouts” at least twice after some arrived late or missed practice.

“Making people puke, making people scream,” Mahalic said. “One kid came, you know, two minutes late to that workout and Damon would be singling him out. He’d be like, these are for (that kid). Thank (that kid) for these. And people are, you know, screaming at (that kid). Just calling him out, saying all this stuff to him. ... It was pretty serious.”

What Mahalic describes is known as "typical football offseason conditioning" or "playing HS football for anyone Gen X or older." Players who skip workouts or show up late do punishment drills and everyone gets punished. The idea is to build shared responsibility. Divorced from that context, it seems harsh and overly punitive.

When freshman RB Fabiano Hale skipped a morning workout, Harrington punished the players for Hale's transgression and encouraged them to handle it within the team, according to one former player, "by any means necessary." When Hale arrived at the locker room that evening, a teammate knocked him unconscious. Hale remains on the team and that teammate ended up doing community service as punishment.

Did Harrington order a Code Red? And what did Harrington's instruction reasonably permit? What does our society now reasonably permit? It’s unclear if Hale was a repeat offender that teammates were angry with, if words were first exchanged when that teammate tried to call Hale to the carpet, or if it was a sucker punch. The Alameda prosecutor's office declined to pursue charges. Harrington was irresponsible in his rhetoric, but even a toned down version that the players needed to take charge of their locker room themselves might have yielded the same result. This is not uncommon football locker room self-policing. The question is: will society still tolerate it?

The Noose Group

This episode was a disappointing inclusion by the Chronicle, irresponsible and lazy at best, an example of journalistic sophistry, at worst. The writers withheld important context to paint the Cal coaches as insensitive, if not abusively racist.

The Noose is the well-established name of an offensive drill that might also be used to describe the position grouping necessary to run it. So the “Noose Group” would be a center, QB and pass catchers. It has been a part of spread football parlance for years and "noose" describes how the receivers holds their hands when they catch the football. None of this is explained in the Chronicle piece.

A Cal player, unaware of its origins, complained that it was racially insensitive. Dykes (incorrectly) attempted to explain the terminology, but agreed to stop using it if it bothered anyone.

This a pretty stark example of shoddy journalism.

Ted Agu's death and sickle cell traits

Sickle cell traits are not the same as sickle cell anemia, but it does inhibit proper red blood cell circulation under extreme stress. It's possible to play football with sickle cell traits (Pittsburgh Steeler staring safety Ryan Clark is one example - and the Steelers held him out of a road trip game in Denver due to altitude concerns). This trait is shared by 8% of African origin populations (its genetic prevalence and value is that it conveys survival advantages against malaria). All NCAA athletes are screened for sickle cell traits and Agu's condition was well-documented since his freshman year.

Given this knowledge, Agu's death during a 2014 offseason drill seems entirely preventable. Cal players were conducting a team building drill where they ran a rope up a steep incline repeatedly. It was high stress metabolic conditioning meant to build toughness and accountability - not necessarily sport specific training. The sort of drill that should have trainers and coaches observing a player like Agu very closely. Or holding him out altogether. Agu lagged during the drill, fell to his knees multiple times and eventually went into a fetal position and died.

Harrington contended to Agu’s lawyers that sickling athletes required no extra consideration of care, which is in direct contradiction to what any reasonably informed conditioning expert working with these athletes knows. Agu exhibited classic symptoms and any reasonable intervention or precaution would have made his death extremely unlikely. The dirty secret here is that most college S&C coaches, despite their reputations as industry leaders, are rarely among the most informed professionals within their sphere.

Agu's family won a 4.75 million dollar settlement from Cal.

Sonny Dykes wants out

Sonny Dykes spent the entire offseason seemingly interviewing for every open job in the country. Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia to name a few. Dykes is the Pac 12's lowest paid coach, he just finished a rebuild that will likely see a post Jared Goff decline, there are cultural and cost-of-living barriers to building a football power in Berkeley, and scandal has a nasty habit of widening in scope. Particularly if the hometown newspaper seem eager to detail real tragedy alongside spurious accusations with equal gusto.

For now, Cal and Dykes are still together because neither can do any better. Not the best rationalization for any marriage.