That three University of Oregon students were sent to the hospital last week should not have made headlines. Many college students take risks they’ll come to recall as foolish, but it’s a lesson best self-taught.
When adults preach common sense, the lectures often go unheard, because kids are wired to ignore preachy adults. As a former knucklehead who became a father of three, I’ve been on both sides of that experience.
But the hospitalization of three Oregon students was newsworthy precisely because they followed the orders of an adult working for the school. The students were football players participating in the early phase of an offseason conditioning program implemented by new coach Willie Taggart.
I wasn’t in the room for Taggart’s introductory meeting with these players, but I can assure you his message was something to the tune of: “Gentlemen, it’s time to toughen up. The days of allowing 70 points to the Washington Huskies are over.”
Never miss a local story.
The task of toughening up the Ducks was given to strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde, who on Jan. 10 supervised the team’s first offseason workout.
“Workout” is one term to describe the regimen. Another might be “abuse.”
According to sources in correspondence with The Oregonian, athletes were asked to perform “military-style push ups” for as long as an hour. And though some Ducks players insist the boot-camp-from-hell accounts are exaggerated, it can’t be denied that three of them required hospitalization for something called rhabdomyolysis.
It’s an ailment caused when muscle tissue breaks down and enters the bloodstream as a fluid, potentially posing kidney damage. College conditioning coaches may not be able to spell rhabdomyolysis, but they should know about it. In 2011, 13 University of Iowa football players were sent to the hospital after a particularly grueling January workout.
“I had to squat 240 pounds 100 times and it was timed,” linebacker Shane DiBona posted on Facebook six years ago. “I can’t walk and I fell down the stairs.”
You’d assume supervising a workout that sends 13 players to the hospital would derail the career of Hawkeyes strength coach Chris Doyle. You’d be wrong. Iowa gave Doyle $625,000 this past season. He’s college football’s highest-paid strength coach
Oregon was a bit less tolerant. It put Oderinde on a one-month suspension, without pay, as Taggart — fearful of losing high school recruits a few weeks before national signing day — acknowledged “the safety of our students must come first. I have addressed the issue with our strength and conditioning staff and I fully support the actions taken by the university.
“I want to thank our medical staff and doctors for taking care of all of our young men,” Taggart continued in a written statement no more heartfelt than a standard-issue press release. “And I want to apologize to the university, our students, alums and fans.”
Blah, blah, blah.
Taggart understands how the system works. He understands how players are denied long-term medical coverage for injuries sustained during their college careers. He understands that there’s a ton of money to be had, and that the coaches should have it all.
Taggart’s first order of business at Oregon was to hire Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator. This would be the same Jim Leavitt who was fired as head coach at the University of South Florida, in 2010, amid accusations he struck a player during halftime.
Had Leavitt cooperated with the investigation into the incident, he likely would have kept his job. But university officials concluded he tried to persuade witnesses of that halftime confrontation to change their stories, and he was out.
Once upon a time, college coaches who hit players were blacklisted in the fictional manner of Norman Dale, who had nowhere to go but that small high school, in rural Indiana, depicted in “Hoosiers.”
But in 2017, Jim Leavitt was given a four-year contract, with an annual salary of $1.15 million, to help restore Oregon as a Pac-12 powerhouse.
Three years ago, the football team at Northwestern attempted to form a union under the national umbrella of the College Athletes Players Association. The notion of players enjoying such reasonable rights as post-career medical benefits, and modifying an insanely demanding offseason workout schedule, appeared to gain momentum.
But in 2015 the National Labor Relations Board quashed the players’ plans to organize, and here’s what we’ve got: an Oregon strength and conditioning coach putting three guys in the hospital, more than seven months before the season opener.
“Had they received a few bucks for signing autographs, the NCAA would have launched an investigation,” Ramogi Huma, the official voice of whatever is left of the College Athletes Players Association, told the Washington Post last week.
Huma’s assessment is not hyperbole. It’s spot-on. Heeding the pleas of an instructor they trusted, three college students did push-ups for an hour, and after their bodies broke down, Willie Taggart thanked the medical staff and doctors at Oregon for “taking care of all our young men.”
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath