Lawsuit revises blame in Mizzou case

New allegations surface surrounding sudden death of Missouri linebacker one year ago

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

— A revised lawsuit filed Tuesday by the parents of a Missouri football player who died during preseason workouts last year targets the unfamiliarity of the team's trainers and assistant coaches with the symptoms and exercise-induced complications of sickle cell trait.

Although a county medical examiner identified viral meningitis as the official cause of death for reserve linebacker Aaron O'Neal, the amended complaint focuses on the role of the genetic condition that a growing number of athletic trainers and team physicians across the country suggest should be more closely monitored. Despite the medical examiner's conclusion, the chairman of the university's pathology department and several outside experts have suggested that sickle cell trait - a blood disorder found in an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the U.S. black population - was a contributing factor in O'Neal's death.

"Aaron O'Neal died from a vascular crisis caused by sickle cell trait and extreme physical exertion, which caused several systems and organs in his body to shut down," reads the revised lawsuit, filed in Boone County Circuit Court along with a motion asking a judge to approve the changes to the complaint.

"The actions and inactions of the defendants on July 12, 2005, demonstrate that they had no familiarity with, or ignored or forgot their required training concerning sickle cell trait."

Hamp Ford, the Columbia attorney representing the university, said he could not comment on the revised complaint because he had not had a chance to look it over.

A Missouri football spokesman did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

The lawsuit was initially filed in August 2005 and names 14 team officials as defendants, including head coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mike Alden.

The revised lawsuit follows several months of document acquisition from the university by attorneys for Lonnie and Deborah O'Neal through the legal process known as discovery. A review of those documents led to the amended complaint, said O'Neal family attorney Chris Bauman.

Among the new allegations:

¢ O'Neal, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, told the strength and conditioning coaches supervising the voluntary summer workout, "I'm telling you, I'm not weak, I just can't go anymore."

¢ With the stricken player slumped on the floor of a Faurot Field locker room, an unidentified strength coach blamed O'Neal for his condition.

Training dealing with sickle cell trait varies widely among college sports programs.

NCAA guidelines treat the condition as "benign" and require members only to consider voluntary testing. But some sports medicine experts are calling for the NCAA to require mandatory preseason testing, noting that intense heat and dehydration can cause potentially fatal complications in athletes with the blood disorder.

The National Athletic Trainers' Association, in conjunction with the NCAA, will host a summit in early 2007 to explore the link between sickle cell trait and risk to athletes.

Pinkel was on vacation during the workouts. NCAA rules prohibit head coaches and their assistants from attending the workouts, which are instead overseen by strength and conditioning coaches and supervised by athletic trainers.