Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Cal strength coach Damon Harrington: I have had no reason to believe there was any cover-up

UC Berkeley and the University of California Department of Intercollegiate Athletics has responded to the recent series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle alleging impropriety with regards to a review of football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington.

In a letter distributed on Friday by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, the head of the campus said that there will be an additional review in response to an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, wherein critics of collegiate athletics called for the dismissal of California Golden Bears football strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington.

Dirks had been sent an open letter by the Berkeley Faculty Association, demanding a review of Harrington in response to the Chronicle's report. Dirks' response to that letter, in part, read:

Let me begin by saying that the health and well being of our student-athletes is critically important to me. Like you, I was troubled by the article that appeared earlier this week in the Chronicle. We all agree that it is imperative that the Cal Football program do everything it can to protect our student-athletes from injury or harm. This has been a frequent topic of discussion with the leadership of Intercollegiate Athletics, and I have been assured that these commitments are understood and supported throughout the program. In fact, IA has recently adopted a robust new policy implementing new NCAA regulations in this area. In the wake of Ted Agu’s tragic death two years ago, IA has instituted many new forms of oversight over the Football program, all designed to ensure that all football practices are not only fully compliant with NCAA guidelines, but go well beyond what they require to fully and consistently ensure the safety of our student-athletes. For example, practice plans are approved in advance by medical staff, medically-trained staff are on hand at all practices, coaches (including head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington) are appropriately trained on how to handle sickle cell trait-afflicted student-athletes, and other medical conditions. Just last week, my chief of staff Nils Gilman met with the IA staff and the medical leadership at University Health Services, where the principle of the medical professionals’ authority was resoundingly affirmed and agreed upon by all.

Dirks went on to say that the matters involving Harrington cited by the critics in the Chronicle piece -- the death of defensive lineman Ted Agu in February of 2014 and an incident involving one teammate punching another (running back Fabiano Hale) in November of 2013 -- have already been adjudicated through the appropriate legal channels. Both parties in the November 2013 incident are still a part of the team, and, according to a team source, have a friendly relationship.

It is important for me to say that I have had no reason to believe there was any cover-up in relation to the football team’s strength and conditioning program, or its coach, during 2013-14. At that time IA reported to then-VCAF John Wilton, who made the decisions regarding how to investigate the incidents, and whether to discipline Coach Harrington or others in connection with the incidents in 2013-14. Several points are worth underscoring in this regard.
The first pertains to the investigation of the assault that took place between the two students in November 2013. As would take place with any other such incident, the matter was referred to the UC police department. Completed in December 2013, the findings of the police investigation were then referred to the Alameda district attorney, who declined to file charges in the matter, and to our Center for Student Conduct, which addressed the incident according to the confidential process the law demands in such cases. Because some people asked whether Coach Harrington may have had some responsibility for the alleged assault, UCPD specifically investigated this question, and concluded at that time Harrington had done nothing wrong.
The second point pertains to the report by UC Davis’s Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, which is attached in its original, unedited form (with only student names and identifiers deleted). This report was commissioned by Wilton and then-Athletic Director Sandy Barbour in the aftermath of Agu’s death in February 2014. Dr. Tanji was specifically charged with reviewing Cal Football’s training practices to see whether they endangered the players. As the report makes clear, some of the student-athletes Dr. Tanji interviewed were selected simply because they had been direct witnesses to the workouts in question, while about 20 additional student-athletes were selected completely at random to speak with Dr. Tanji. At the same time, it was made clear to all members of the team that anyone who wished to speak to the investigators was welcome to do so. Dr. Tanji interviewed every single student who responded to the interviews or came forward. It is important to underscore that the Tanji review was never intended to be an investigation into the responsibility of coach Harrington for the assault in the Fall, as this matter had already been investigated by the UCPD months earlier.
The central finding of the Tanji report is clear: the football team’s strength and conditioning program differed in no significant respect from football conditioning programs all over the country. In terms of the safety of the program, what stood out about it was its normalcy. Yes, it was rigorous and challenging, but so are all effective strength and conditioning programs. 

The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics issued a statement of its own, exclusively to BearTerritory and NBC Sports, on Saturday:

The recent series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle on our football strength and conditioning program bring up a couple of issues from the past - important matters that nobody here has ever minimized or dismissed - but matters that have been properly investigated and adjudicated.
The investigation of football's strength and conditioning program was commissioned by (then) Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance, John Wilton and (former) Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Sandy Barbour, and conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Tanji.
Dr. Tanji is a professional with the highest ethical standards and there is zero evidence to the contrary. The central finding of the Tanji report is absolutely clear: that the strength and conditioning program under Harrington’s direction was in no significant respect different from football conditioning programs all over the country. In terms of the safety of the program, what stood out about it was its utter normalcy — a point not mentioned in the Chronicle piece, and also not disputed by it.
Our concern has always been, is, and will continue to be doing what is in the best interest of our student-athletes. The progress our football program has made over the past three years academically and athletically is well documented. The work our kids are doing in the community continues to shine. We are on an upward trajectory — the right trajectory — and we will continue to move in that direction. And, we will no longer allow negative stories that are based on and influenced by the opinion and conjecture of a couple of long-standing critics of intercollegiate athletics at Cal to derail the progress we have made and the positive path forward we are on.
Most importantly, our current student-athletes have spoken. Their voices are clear. They are the ones that should be heard. These are the young men who are in direct contact and impacted by Coach Harrington and Coach Dykes - everyday. Here is an example of what our student-athletes have to say:
http://www.californiagoldenblogs.com/2016/6/30/12069990/california-golden-bears-defend-strength-coach-damon-harrington
http://bearinsider.com/news/story.php?article=2098.  

The Tanji report found that Harrington had no inciting role in Hale being punched by a teammate in the locker room, after Hale had missed a morning workout, an absence which caused the rest of the team to do extra conditioning. In the case of Agu, new, more stringent standards of practice and education were adopted by the Cal strength staff, in particular, with regards to sickle cell trait.

Specifically, in a statement released following the $4.75 million wrongful death settlement with Agu's family in late January, the University said:

"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. For example, during the past two years we have instituted additional medical screening of student-athletes, additional training of coaches and conditioning staff, additional oversight of workout plans, more detailed counseling of student-athletes with identified medical conditions, and specific mandates regarding workout supervision."

In a June 10 Cal Athletics response to a request for comment and clarification by the Chronicle, those changes are further detailed:

While Dr. Tanji's report found that Cal Football's strength and conditioning program met contemporary standards of practice, we have made changes that in many cases go beyond those standards. We continue to explore measures that can further enhance the safety of our student-athletes. Coach Harrington’s direct supervisor reviews the design of all football workouts and personally observes all but the most routine team workouts. Where warranted, medical staff review of workout design is included to insure safety. All workouts are reviewed based and have a second level of review as indicated. Also, a member of the sports medicine staff is present at every workout (and has been for years), and, our sports medicine staff has the unquestionable authority to stop workouts.

The critics heavily cited in the Chronicle piece -- among them computer science professor Brian Barsky, a noted longtime opponent of intercollegiate athletics, and professor of public policy Michael O'Hare (another longtime opponent of collegiate athletics) -- also assert that there was a conflict of interest -- or at the very least an appearance of conflict of interest -- in the two men who conducted the 2014 review of the strength and conditioning program.

Critics also question the integrity of the investigation because the investigators — John Murray, a private strength and conditioning coach, and Jeffrey Tanji, medical director for sports at UC Davis — had personal ties with Cal staff. Murray disclosed in the report that he was a “friend and colleague” of Mike Blasquez, who oversees all of Cal’s strength and conditioning programs. And Tanji said he had trained Casey Batten, the football team physician. Both said in the report those relationships did not influence their findings.

In answer to that, Cal spokesman Wes Mallette said, "Medical and coaching communities are small and it is not uncommon for people to be acquainted as the community of people in the intercollegiate sports is a very networked group of individuals. Networking to be able to help patients and students is vital and the need to know others does not mean compromised."

Additionally, Mallette provided the answer he also provided to the Chronicle when asked about a so-called "noose group," which was said by former defensive lineman Gabe King (who left the program in the middle of the 2013 season) to include African-American players. Here is the text of the e-mail:

To clarify the misinformation surrounding your question re: "the noose group":

“Noose” was not used to refer to a specific group of student-athletes. Rather, it is a term that is commonly used to describe a particular football catching technique and drills intended to teach that technique. Coaches stopped using this term when a complaint was raised.

Please see the following links for further clarification:

http://www.football-tutorials.com/catching-drills-for-football-the-noose/885/ 
https://www.xandolabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2323:noose-drill-progression&catid=104&Itemid=170 
http://iteachicoachiblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/settle-noose-drill.html  

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