Analysis: Oregon football workouts sent players to hospital. Who will stand up for them?

The physical endangerment of three players, a direct result of following orders from coaches, results in no action from NCAA – no investigation, no rebuke, no infractions penalty.

Adam Kilgore / The Washington Post
January 17, 2017

As three Oregon football players remained hospitalized Tuesday morning, a disquieting thought struck Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association. “Had they received a few bucks for signing an autograph,” Huma said, “the NCAA would have launched an investigation.” But the physical endangerment of three players, a direct result of following orders from coaches, would result in no action from college sports’ governing body – no investigation, no rebuke, no infractions penalty.

The three players – Doug Brenner, Sam Poutasi and Cam McCormick – checked into PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend in Springfield, Ore. late last week, as the Oregonian first reported Monday. They arrived after an arduous, offseason team workout left them with symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a condition that causes muscles to break down and the resultant fluid to leak into the bloodstream. By Tuesday morning, the players had been upgraded from fair to good condition while being monitored for possible kidney damage.

The ordeal underscored the vulnerability college athletes face in an unbalanced power dynamic. The stakes extend beyond the typical debates. As Northwestern football players pursued the option to unionize in 2014 and 2015, the majority of headlines focused on the third-rail topic of whether such action would lead to student-athletes being defined as employees and receiving compensation beyond scholarships.

The people at the fore of the movement had other priorities, starting with the jarring lack of recourse for players subject to medical mistreatment from coaches or schools. The NCAA either cannot or does not force schools to abide by its medical guidelines, which cover everything from lightning safety to immunizations. No organization exists to pressure schools regarding potential medical neglect.

“That was my primary motivation when trying to help launch that movement,” Huma said.

Annually, the NCAA publishes a Sports Medicine Handbook. The 2014-15 version ran 140 pages long. In the section entitled “Preseason Preparation,” the NCAA instructs schools that conditioning should be “phased in gradually” during “transitional periods,” such as January when players are returning from winter break.

The Oregonian reported that the players went to the hospital after performing an hour of “military-style” up-downs and push-ups. The NCAA has rules pertaining to practice time, but none regarding its own set of best medical practices.

“The current structure does not enforce health and safety mandates,” Huma said. “The NCAA has plenty of guidelines, but they don’t enforce any of them.”

What happens when a school puts players at risk through unduly harsh practice methods? Iowa recently closed such a case. In 2011, 13 Iowa players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis after they endured an intense regimen of squats during a team workout, then returned the following day for another intense session, this time for upper-body muscles, despite players’ complaints of dark-colored urine, a sign of rhabdomyolysis.

Iowa investigated the workout and determined there had been no wrongdoing. The school recommended – but did not require – the football program halt the workout, which it did. Three months after the controversy, Iowa’s strength coach, Chris Doyle, received an award for most valuable assistant coach from Coach Kirk Ferentz.

In 2014, cornerback William Lowe, one of the 13 affected players, filed suit against the school, alleging Iowa had subjected him to unnecessary bodily harm and had failed to properly monitor the workouts. Lowe, who never returned to the team, said in the suit he experienced subsequent weight loss, headaches, high blood pressure and continued lower back pain.

Earlier this month, nearly six years after the workouts, Iowa settled with Lowe for $15,000. None of the other 12 players sued, and none have received payments from the school.

If college athletes could organize, they might have a stronger tool to prevent harm. Huma pointed to the NFL’s concussion protocol. Teams now bear responsibility for pulling potentially concussed players from games. In a new rule instituted this year, the NFL can investigate cases and fine teams for violations.

“That didn’t happen because the NFL woke up one day and decided to do it,” Huma said. “That happened because the NFL Players Association fought for it. The players need a voice that has the players’ best interest as a priority, not as an afterthought.”

The players’ best recourse for assistance now comes from courts, which Huma said poses challenges. He is currently opposing a settlement proposed by a U.S. district judge in Chicago in the class-action concussion lawsuit against the NCAA brought by former Eastern Illinois player Adrian Arrington. The settlement, Huma said, would pay “zero dollars” to former players affected by brain injuries, instead giving players medical monitoring that may be covered by their health insurance.

“The courts don’t want to do anything that forces the NCAA to change what it’s been doing for decades now,” Huma said. “The settlement is a sham, and the court is about to bless it.”

The issue most often debated regarding the welfare of college athletes is whether schools exploit their work. But players have little to no power in solving issues well beyond compensation. Three Oregon football players who remained in the hospital Tuesday could attest.