The family of a deceased Mississippi football player has notified the University of Mississippi and the NCAA that it intends to sue both entities after the February 2010 death of Bennie Abram, an Ole Miss junior college transfer who died from complications involving sickle cell trait.
The suit intends to name Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, athletic department medical director Dr. Jeffrey Dennis, Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford, Miss. and the NCAA as well as other Ole Miss members. The suit will seek a total of $10 million in damages according to a notice letter sent to all prospective defendants early Friday. Mississippi law requires a 90-day notice in such cases, if state employees are involved, before a suit is formally filed. The three-month period theoretically provides a window for the complaint to be resolved.
Abram, a walk-on, collapsed shortly after an early-morning offseason workout on Feb. 19, 2010. Six hours later he was pronounced dead. Three months later an autopsy determined that Abram died from complications involving sickle cell trait. Abram was the 21st NCAA football player to die from a non-traumatic event since 2000. Eleven of those deaths have come in Division I-A. Sickle cell trait remains the leading killer of Division I college football players since that year.
Sickle cell trait is an inherited condition that occurs in approximately eight percent (one in 12) of the country's African-American population. Caucasians are susceptible at a much lower rate. During periods of extreme exertion, blood cells can "sickle," causing a log jam in vessels that restricts blood flow. It is perfectly normal for those with the trait to be able to compete at a high level. Experts recommend a series of steps and an acclimation period allowing the body to build up to periods of high exertion.
The notice letter stated Ole Miss and its staff "violated every single one of those guidelines."
The NCAA did not mandate testing for the sickle cell trait until last year. That had resulted from legal settlement between the family of a deceased Rice player and the NCAA in 2009. Eugene Egdorf, who is representing Abram's family, also represented the family of Rice's Dale Lloyd II, who died in 2006 after a workout due to sickle cell trait. The Lloyds subsequently sued. As part of a settlement in June 2009, the NCAA agreed to move toward mandating testing. Last August, the NCAA began requiring all athletes to be tested for sickle cell trait -- with conditions. If athletes can show results of a previous test or sign a waiver, they do not have to be tested.
"Student-athletes shouldn't be dying because of sickle cell," Egdorf said. "The only reason that it turns fatal is because someone along the way made mistakes."
Ole Miss has tested for sickle cell trait since 1989, according to the notice letter. However, Egdorf said in the document that Abrams died following a workout that was "recklessly intense". The proposed defendants, it says, owed Abrams " ... an adequate plan for monitoring athletes with SCT ..."
The letter states that Nutt is "ultimately responsible for all actions (an inactions) of his staff."
Ole Miss trainer Shannon Singletary told CBSSports.com a year ago that Abram was involved in the first team morning run of the offseason. The workouts were monitored by emergency personnel and ambulance was on the scene within 11 minutes, he said.
Abram's father, Bennie Jr., told CBSSports.com at the time that there was a history of sickle cell in the family. The notice letter alleges that Ole Miss never told the player's parents that Bennie had tested positive for sickle cell trait. There is also "good reason to believe" Abrams himself was never told, according to the letter.
NCAA president Mark Emmert, along with the hospital and Dr. Dennis, were all to have received the same letter on Friday.
Offseason football workouts came under scrutiny again this week when 13 Iowa football players were taken to a hospital Monday because of what was reported to be exertional rhabdomyolysis. "Rhamdo" is a condition that causes the breakdown of skeletal muscle and can cause kidney damage.
Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone issued this statement Friday afternoon:
"The tragic loss of Bennie was immeasurable to not only the Abram family, but also the Ole Miss family. The well-being of our student-athletes has, and always will be, our highest priority. We reviewed all the actions taken by our medical professionals, athletic trainers and coaches and found that medical protocol and emergency action plans complied with the Best Practices at that time for such cases. We are surprised by this letter from the attorneys and are confident that the facts confirm that we followed the proper procedures."
Calls to the NCAA seeking comment were not immediately returned.