Back in 2005, the Missouri football team lost a freshman defensive end named Aaron O’Neal, who collapsed during a summer workout and died shortly thereafter. Only last month, nearly four years later, did the University of Missouri settle a lawsuit with O’Neal’s family, which awarded them $2 million.
But there’s plenty that’s fishy about the settlement, which is sort of to be expected when dealing with young men who die under athletic supervision. As the ASSOCIATED PRESS notes, the settlement is worded (and trust us, this is no accident) to absolve anyone involved of blame:
Missouri agreed in March to pay O’Neal’s parents, settling a 3 1/2-year-old suit before trial. The settlement includes language that attributes no fault to [head coach Gary] Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden, sports medicine director Rex Sharp, strength and conditioning director Pat Ivey and 10 other current or past university employees.
That’s incredibly strange, when you consider the litany of decisions made by Missouri staff that likely directly led to O’Neal’s death.
The AP obtained copies of depositions made as part of the regular pre-trial procedure of a lawsuit like this, and according to these documents, Missouri screwed up when it came to protecting O’Neal’s life. Repeatedly.
O’Neal collapsed during an hour-long agility workout, one in which he completed the first four of the six drills without incident. Once in the fifth drill, though, his body began to give out, and that’s when all hell began to break loose:
By the final drill, O’Neal complained of blurry vision. At one point, he sunk to his hands and knees. When a 300-pound offensive lineman completed the drill first, O’Neal was ordered to repeat it three more times.
“I’m trying,” he said, when told to jog and not walk back into line. “I’m not weak. I just can’t go on.”
O’Neal eventually slumped to the ground and was helped off the field by a teammate to a nearby locker room.
As Ivey’s deposition notes, Sharp did not attend to O’Neal as expected, instead focusing his attention on admonishing a teammate for “babying” the dying athlete; the teammate had squirted water on his head.
The situation worsened in the locker room as O’Neal’s condition deteriorated, all while nobody was bothering to call 911, which is part of school policy under the Emergency Action Plan.
Two strength coaches left the area before strength coach Josh Stoner decided to flag down a campus landscaping truck, which then carried an unconscious O’Neal to the team offices rather than a hospital one-quarter mile away.
University employees also offered conflicting accounts about the frantic moments after O’Neal was taken from the stadium but before he made it to the hospital.
Sharp said once in his office he saw O’Neal in the truck. He testified that he hesitated to call 911 because Stoner came inside and said “I need help,” but didn’t mention O’Neal by name. Stoner testified he immediately identified O’Neal as the player needing help.
After some more Keystone Kops-like nonsense with a cell phone being left behind, 911 was finally called, and O’Neal finally made it to the hospital, a mere 105 minutes after collapsing. He died shortly thereafter.
Even the autopsy was fraught with shady business. The Boone County medical examiner named the cause of death as viral meningitis, which proved to be jarringly incorrect; it’s now all but certain that O’Neal died of sickle cell trait, a blood disease that affects 8-10 percent of African-American men.
Sharp testified later that he wasn’t aware of how to deal with an athlete experiencing complications with the disease, despite the fact that Missouri’s sports medicine handbook requires that he and his assistants be familiar with the disease. In Sharp’s defense, though, he wasn’t aware of that, either.
And yet with all of those poor decisions that led to O’Neal being pressed far beyond his body’s breaking point, then being driven around for over an hour without medical attention as his life slipped away, the lawsuit claims no fault for anybody at the university at the time.
Sure, fault-free language in a pre-trial settlement is common practice for large institutions looking to sweep nasty problems under the rug. We’re not sure that makes it “right,” either from a factual or (perhaps more importantly) moral perspective.