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Pushing Players Too Far to “Do Something” Will Not “Win the Day” in Court – Takeaways from two UO Suits

May 1, 2019

Sports Medicine and the Law

When Willie Taggart took over as the head coach for the University of Oregon football program, the Ducks’ motto changed from “Win the Day” to “Do Something.” Now, Taggart, his staff, the University, and the NCAA are faced with two lawsuits alleging that Taggart and his staff did too much, or not enough, during the team’s winter-break workout sessions.

In January 2019, Doug Brenner and Sam Poutasi—two offensive linemen for the University of Oregon (“Oregon”)—filed separate negligence lawsuits against former head coach Willie Taggart, former strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”), and Oregon, seeking a collective $16.5 million in damages. Both lawsuits stem from a series of workouts administered by Oderinde in January 2017, which sent Brenner, Poutasi, and a third student-athlete (Cam McCormick) to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition in which muscle tissue rapidly breaks down and releases dangerous proteins into the bloodstream. The student-athletes claim Taggart and Oderinde were negligent in imposing physically impossible exercise regimens on football players—regimens Taggart and Oderinde allegedly knew or should have known were contrary to the warnings and guidelines issued by the NCAA. Poutasi and Brenner further allege that Oregon and the NCAA negligently failed to prohibit and regulate Oderinde’s punishment-style workouts. Brenner claims this negligence caused him to suffer $11.5 million in damages. Poutasi is seeking $5 million for physical and emotional pain, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, and diminishment of avocational abilities. McCormick has not joined either lawsuit.

The Workout

According to Poutasi’s complaint, on the morning of January 10, 2017, he arrived at practice and saw garbage cans intended to serve as vomit receptacles lining the walls of the workout room. There was no water available in the room and the coaches had breathing machines available in the event a student-athlete lost consciousness and passed out. The workout required 40 student-athletes to execute 10 perfect push-ups in unison. If even one student-athlete failed to use perfect technique, Taggart and Oderinde stopped the drill, made the student-athletes perform numerous up-downs, and would then re-start the push-up drill from the beginning. Poutasi contends Taggart and Oderinde knew this was an impossible drill to successfully complete, but proceeded with the workout anyway to “weed out the ‘snakes’ on the team.”

The complaint goes on to allege that Taggart and Oderinde continued to impose extreme physical regimens on the student-athletes over the course of several days even though the student-athletes were passing out, vomiting, and collapsing during practice. Oderinde allegedly knew of the health risks associated with the regimens and mockingly asked student-athletes if they “had any blood in their pee yet.” As the student-athletes became more exhausted and close to physically breaking, Oderinde allegedly pressed the student-athletes even harder. Poutasi claims Oderinde would shout, “If anyone wants to quit on their team, feel free to stop. If you want to give up on your team, then you can.” That statement, coupled with Taggart’s threat that he and Oderinde intended to eliminate the weakest players, allegedly signaled to Poutasi and the other student-athletes that there would be consequences if they did not continue with the conditioning exercises.

The Injuries

On the morning of January 13, 2017— three days after the initial offseason workout—Poutasi says student-athletes, including Brenner and McCormick, began experiencing muscle seizures and excreting black urine, which is a sign the body’s organs are beginning to shut down and a symptom of rhabdomyolysis. According to the Mayo Clinic, rhabdomyolysis occurs when over-fatigued muscles break down and release myoglobin, a dangerous protein, into the bloodstream. When myoglobin reaches the kidneys, it can cause serious kidney damage, and, in some cases, can lead to total kidney failure. The symptoms of rhabdomyolysis vary but typically include muscle aches, muscle weakness, and cola-colored urine—the same symptoms Brenner and Poutasi were exhibiting on January 13. When they consulted the team doctor about these symptoms, they were sent to the hospital immediately, where they remained for several days.

According to Poutasi’s complaint, he suffered severely swollen arms, muscle aches and pains, loss of use of arms, elevated creatinine kinase levels, discolored urine, and damage to his kidneys as a direct and proximate result of the workouts and the resulting acute exertional rhabdomyolysis. Brenner alleges similar injuries. In his complaint, he says the defendants’ negligence caused him to suffer permanent renal injury and increased his risk of kidney failure, kidney disease, and death.

Both players remain on Oregon’s football roster.

Takeaway

The Poutasi and Brenner lawsuits both allege a single cause of action—negligence. They claim Taggart and Oderinde negligently imposed extreme physical exercises on student-athletes under the guise of strength and conditioning and contend Taggart and Oderinde knew or should have known that such exercises could lead to serious health injuries or even death. They further allege that Oderinde did not have an industry-required strength and conditioning certification and contend Oregon and the NCAA were negligent in failing to prohibit and regulate Oderinde’s physical punishment regimens.

As counsel to athletic trainers and universities, the allegations against Taggart, Oderinde, Oregon, and the NCAA are ones we commonly see. Student-athlete injuries have become a hot-button issue in the last decade and lawsuits naming coaches, athletic trainers, and universities as defendants are on the rise. The risk of liability is especially high for strength and conditioning coaches, who plan and oversee workouts, and athletic trainers, who are often the first to identify injuries, develop a treatment plan, and return student-athletes to play. In today’s litigious society, every action strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers make carries with it significant responsibility, and that responsibility flows to the head coach and the university as well.

Fortunately, there are steps athletic trainers, coaches, and universities can take to ensure they are keeping with best practices and creating a safe environment for student-athletes. First is training and education. Coaches and universities should require all athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches to have the industry-required certifications from their respective organizations. This helps mitigate potential liability both on paper and in practice. In the Poutasi and Brenner cases, Oderinde’s sole credential was a two-day strength training course offered by the Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Poutasi and Brenner used this to show that Oderinde was under-qualified to implement such grueling exercises, and that the defendants did not care that the workouts violated NCAA guidelines. Should these cases proceed to trial, and if supported by the evidence, Plaintiffs’ counsel will get many miles out of the fact that Oderinde did not carry the industry-required certifications, regardless of Orderinde’s bona fides as a strength and conditioning coach.

Next, strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers should ensure all workouts are in compliance with NCAA regulations and make student-athlete safety their primary concern. All strength and conditioning workouts should be reviewed and approved by university medical staff before administering the workouts. If, as Poutasi and Brenner claim in their lawsuits, student-athletes pass out, vomit, and collapse during practice, strength and conditioning coaches should heed these warnings and give the student-athletes adequate time to rest and recover. When the student-athletes are ready to return to training, coaches and staff should closely monitor the student-athletes and modify the exercise regimens as needed. Punishment-style workouts that are contrary to industry standards should be avoided at all costs.

Finally, maintaining a proper culture is crucial. Coaches and staff must ensure that the culture they maintain does not discourage student-athletes from being forthright about their physical and mental symptoms. Here, players did not feel like they could take a break or tell Oderinde about their pain and fatigue because of his past comments to players, such as “I don’t give a f*** about your shoulders! Do you think Stanford gives a f*** about your shoulders?” These statements created a culture in which student-athletes thought there would be consequences if they failed to keep working through the training exercises, no matter their physical breaking point. As these cases continue to move forward, Plaintiffs’ counsel will use Oderinde’s comments to show there was a toxic culture of intimidation and fear at Oregon and will take all the teeth out of defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs could have and should have stopped the workout if they were experiencing those symptoms.

Take this case study as a learning opportunity and put these principles into practice. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to Monday morning “lawyer-back” what the defendants should have done here. The defendants are facing a set of unfavorable facts that could have been corrected before any workout began and that would have increased player safety and mitigated legal risks. Ensure your staff has the proper training, education, and certifications, ensure workout programs are reviewed and approved by medical staff, and ensure the culture of the program is one that encourages player self-reporting and safety, rather than discourages it.

 

This article originally appeared in Montgomery McCracken’s Sports Medicine and the Law Newsletter. To learn more, please click here.