What money can’t buy
LINDA WILL OF ONTARIO, the mother of a Northwestern University football player who died of an asthma attack after completing a grueling sprint drill that had been outlawed by the NCAA, got $16 million from the Illinois university this week. But she didn’t get the thing she wanted most: an apology.
Northwestern did offer its regrets. University spokesman Al Cubbage told The Times that the death four years ago of Will’s son, 22-year-old Rashidi Wheeler, had affected the community a great deal. “We are truly sorry this unfortunate, tragic incident occurred,” he said. “That, in my mind, is an apology.”
That’s kind of like ordering someone to be blindfolded and then saying you’re sorry she cannot see. Being sorry Wheeler died is nothing like being sorry for causing his death. Yet the fact that the university was willing to pay $16 million, the largest wrongful-death settlement for a single male under 30 in Cook County history, indicates more than a little culpability.
Indeed, Northwestern probably wouldn’t have fared well had the case gone before a jury. Not only were coaches forcing players through a drill that violated NCAA rules, one coach continued to time other players while Wheeler was fighting for life on the sidelines. A university doctor destroyed the results of Wheeler’s final physical exam, for unknown reasons. Trainers seem not to have recognized that the senior strong safety was having an asthma attack, though he was known to be an asthmatic.
Northwestern offered the monetary settlement to Will months ago, but she repeatedly turned it down, against the advice of her attorneys and her family. Instead, she made a host of other demands, including a jury trial, an apology and a campus memorial to her son. She was finally forced to accept the settlement Monday by a judge. Meanwhile, Northwestern’s refusal to apologize to a grieving mother, one who believes closure is more important than money, will surely hurt its image more than any court judgment could.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, there’s more at stake than reputation; the university continues to insist that Wheeler’s death was caused by the now-banned herbal stimulant ephedra, which he had ingested before practice. Northwestern is suing three ephedra manufacturers and distributors in connection with Wheeler’s death. But the university’s lawyers will have a tough enough time getting past the fact that the county coroner ruled Wheeler died of exercise-induced bronchial asthma.
Northwestern says it “continues to support the actions of the coaches and members of its athletic staff who were involved in this unfortunate incident.” Yet surely Linda Will deserves the university’s support as well, and even if meeting all her demands would have been impossible, an apology isn’t too much to ask.