Legal Challenges Could Emerge from Missouri Player’s Death

Aug 23, 2005

Any day now, the Boone County, Missouri medical examiner is expected to get the tests back that will help her definitively determine the reason that University of Missouri redshirt freshman football player Aaron O’Neal died July 12 after an off-season, voluntary workout.
The legal questions, however, may take much longer to unravel.
These questions have surfaced in the wake of O’Neal’s death, fueled by heightened sensitivity to such incidents. In 2001, three Division I student-athletes died during or after workouts. In each case, legal activity, in some form or fashion followed.
After that tumultuous off-season, the NCAA instituted a rule that required summer workouts to be supervised by strength and conditioning directors and athletic trainers. Those supervising the workouts were also required to be trained and certified in CPR and first aid techniques. In addition, the NCAA required that they be given the “unchallengeable authority to cancel or modify the workout for health and safety reasons.”
According to a university statement, three of MU trainers were in attendance at the fateful workout. The university also said that “O’Neal completed the workout and returned to the gameday locker room, where he became uncommunicative. The training staff assisted him and called 911. He was pronounced dead at University Hospital.”
The Associated Press, through a public records request late last month, painted a much more thorough picture. It noted that O’Neal “started to struggle during conditioning drills about 45 minutes into the session.” It added that O’Neal “slumped to the ground after the final drill and was helped off the field by a teammate.”
University personnel, according to the wire service, did not immediately call 911 or take O’Neal to the hospital across the street. Instead, they took O’Neal, who still had a pulse, to an athletics building. There, O’Neal’s pulse “further weakened.”
The 19-year-old O’Neal was “in full cardiac arrest” by the time campus police officer Clayton Henke and University Hospital paramedics arrived at the building. The AP quoted athletic trainer Greg Nagel during a 911 call as telling emergency dispatchers that O’Neal “was brought to our door in the back of a pickup from afternoon workouts.”
The AP reported that “15 minutes after Nagel’s call to 911, Henke was sent to the scene at 3:24 p.m., nearly one hour after the conclusion of the workout.
“O’Neal was unconscious when he arrived at the Taylor building, assistant athletic trainer Alfred Castillo told university police. O’Neal was taken there rather than the nearby hospital ‘so that O’Neal could be seen by staff members,’ Henke wrote.”
O’Neal was pronounced dead at the hospital at 4:05 p.m.
The university countered the AP report with its own press release on July 29:
“While the review of the events that took place on the tragic day of July 12, 2005 has not been fully completed, the institution believes it is important to clarify to the extent possible what occurred on that day. We are continuing to do our due diligence in assisting with a review of the day’s events. We ask for everyone’s patience as we allow this review to be pursued. We will provide periodic updates as further information is obtained.
“Following is a sequence of significant events, with some information having been obtained from official documentation. Other times are an estimation based on the best information available to the institution at this time.
(All times are approximate)
•1:30 p.m. – Voluntary summer conditioning workout session began at Faurot Field.
•2:35 p.m. – Conditioning drills ended, with all players completing the workout.
•2:39 p.m. – Aaron O’Neal went to the ground, as captured by a newspaper photographer in attendance, after completing stretching drills. He then joined his teammates in a huddle before the group dispersed.
•2:43 p.m. – Aaron began walking to the game day lockerroom located underneath the south stands of Memorial Stadium, and was assisted by a teammate, as documented by a photographer in attendance.
•2:45-2:57 p.m. – Aaron was in the lockerroom with a teammate and an athletic staff member.
•2:57-3:00 p.m. – Aaron was carried out of the lockerroom by a teammate and athletic staff member into the front seat of an awaiting truck located in the parking lot south of the lockerroom.
•3:03 p.m. – Vehicle arrives at the sports medicine facility in the Tom Taylor building.
•3:08 p.m. – Paramedics called via 911 from the sports medicine offices.
•3:14 p.m. – Ambulance arrives at Taylor building and assumes primary care.
•3:30 p.m. – Ambulance arrives at University Hospital.”
The legal issues could be further exacerbated by the aforementioned medical examiner Valerie Rao, who wants, as part of her investigation, to interview the players who were at the drill as well as other witnesses.
“I would like to know — what was the extent of training? — and if he had expressed that he was experiencing anything during that training period,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “These are things I think the teammates may be able to share and could shed some light.”
When another paper, the Kansas City Star, asked O’Neal’s sister, Ursala, whether the family was contemplating legal action, she said she was unsure.


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