Sticking with the recent theme of lawsuits, trials and punishments, let me begin this morning with a trial in which a former offensive lineman at the University of Oregon is suing the NCAA, the University of Oregon former Oregon head coach, Willie Taggert, and former Oregon strength and conditioning coach, Irele Oderinde, for $125M claiming that he suffered “lifelong injuries during a series of controversial workouts in 2017 that led to the condition rhabdomyolysis.” Doug Brenner claims the damage to his kidneys from this condition has shortened his life expectancy.
In the pleading, Brenner asserts negligence on the part of all defendants including the two coaches. The suit says that Taggert failed to prohibit physical punishment meted out to players and that Taggert failed “to ensure that Oderinde had adequate training to do his job.”
If indeed the assertions against Taggert, Oderinde and the University of Oregon are valid, there is plenty of room for the assignment of guilt and punishment. Even though I am not normally a defender of anything done or not done by the NCAA, I have to say that the allegations against the institution located in Indianapolis is pretty thin gruel. Here is what Brenner asserts that the NCAA did wrong that led to his injury and thus to this lawsuit for $100M against the NCAA:
- The NCAA failed to provide a specific rule or bylaw regarding over-exerting players during workouts and by failing to do so the NCAA acted with malice and showed reckless indifference to the existence of a highly reasonable chance of serious harm to players.
It seems to me that the harm here comes as a result of actions on a practice field in Eugene, Oregon and that if there were any malfeasance – or non-feasance – involved in those actions on the practice field, it would be the responsibility of the folks on site at the time. Having an NCAA rule or bylaw which might or might not be enforceable from about 2000 miles away is not likely to have prevented whatever injuries did or did not occur on the days in question.
Here in Virginia, there are speed limit laws on the books enacted by legislative bodies at the State and Local levels; there are executive branch personnel who seek to enforce those laws. That does not prevent injury – and even death – when someone ignores the law by driving at 100 mph and winds up killing a bystander. Nor is it reasonable to assert that the fundamental reason the various legislators enacted those laws was to obviate any responsibility for such deaths by the legislators themselves.
The allegations against Taggert and Oderinde are more interesting to me. Willie Taggert took over the coaching job at Oregon in December 2016. He was a “hot property” at the time because his USF team had just gone 10-2 in the 2016 season and earned an invitation to the Birmingham Bowl that year. The Ducks had gone 4-8 in the 2016 season and most folks thought the program was headed in the wrong direction. Then the assertions in the lawsuit get interesting:
- Supposedly, Taggert told the players that he and his staff were going to focus on strength and conditioning and that players who were not onboard with this direction were snakes in the grass who needed to be found out and have their heads cut off. [Aside: Clearly, coaching hyperbole here…]
- Coach Oderinde had been Taggert’s strength and conditioning coach at USF prior to Taggert taking the job at Oregon. He brought Oderinde with him to Oregon.
- Sometime early in Taggert’s and Oderinde’s tenure, there were a series of four daily workouts which resulted in three team members – – Brenner being one of them – – being hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis. Related to this is the assertion that coaches and trainers withheld water from players until all the drills were completed.
- About 6 weeks after taking over at Oregon, Taggert suspended Oderinde for a month soon after the hospitalizations took place.
If in fact all of that is true, it would seem clear to me that Coach Taggert knew about the punishing workouts and that he took disciplinary action against Coach Oderinde when it resulted in players needing hospitalization. While I do not think that any sort of oversight by the NCAA from afar would have been meaningful here, I do think that oversight and focus on the part of the head coach sort of co-located with the workouts is reasonable to expect. I do not mean that Coach Taggert needed to be there for every bubble and squeak of the workouts themselves, but he could easily have overseen what was being done and how players were reacting in the post-workout times.
The question about Coach Oderinde’s adequate or inadequate training to do his job will have to be argued out in court. However, there is an interesting follow-on action here:
- Coach Taggert was at Oregon for only one season (2017). The Ducks went 7-5 that year and were invited to the Las Vegas Bowl game.
- Before that bowl game happened, Taggert left Oregon to take the head coaching job at Florida State.
- Once at Florida State, Taggert once again hired Oderinde as the Seminoles’ strength and conditioning coach.
You can read all of that to mean that Coach Taggert was pleased with the results of his strength and conditioning programs at the three schools. You can also read that to mean that over a span of several years, Coach Taggert had to know the kinds of workouts that could be ongoing. That is for the jury to decide.
When I first read about this lawsuit about 10 days ago, my first thought was that this would be settled before the case went to the jury. Now I am not so sure because all the defendants have very different outcomes that they want from – or want to avoid as a result of – this action:
- The NCAA is not likely to want to settle with Brenner if it must pay $10M or more. The NCAA is int financially bankrupt by any means but settling this case could easily mean writing a check for 8 figures and that will not go down easily. Brenner probably added the NCAA to the defendants’ list here simply because it has deep pockets, and it costs him nothing to append them to the action.
- Oregon asserts that it did nothing wrong. Moreover, after the suspension resulting from the hospitalizations, Oregon made an organizational change and required Coach Oderinde to report to an official in the Athletic Department and not directly to Coach Taggert. It is hard for me to see the university’s motivation to settle here unless it is for pennies on the dollar.
- The two coaches should be highly motivated to settle the case as quietly as possible with all sorts of non-disclosure agreements attached to the settlements. However, the two coaches – – Coach Oderinde in particular – – probably do not have deep enough pockets to come close to making an offer that Brenner and his attorneys would find reasonable.
As best as I can tell, the trial is ongoing. If I run across the final decision here, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Finally, the objective of the trial referenced above is for the jury to determine the truth in the matter. That being the case, let me close today with this observation about “The Truth” by Oscar Wilde:
“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………