The Iowa Rhabdo Report Is Out, and You Already Know What's In It


Stand down, big guy

On January 27, with the national media in an uproar and angry parents breathing down her neck, Iowa Board of Regents president David Miles and University of Iowa president Sally Mason announced that they were commissioning a panel to examine both the rhabdomyolysis outbreak in the football program and the athletic department's response, with a final report due in ninety days. Iowa football used the interim period to do much of what it should have done in the immediate aftermath of the hospitalizations: Kirk Ferentz faced the press and nearly apologized for not immediately returning to campus. People with knowledge of Iowa's strength training regimen told reporters that the workout in question was rare but not unheard of. Examples of similar outbreaks -- in particular, among college swimmers at South Carolina -- were examined. FOIAs were filed. Emails were disclosed. And wagons were circled around Iowa strength & conditioning coach Chris Doyle.

This morning, barely more than halfway through its ninety-day timetable, that committee will release its report. The report's findings confirm what we've heard in the last fifty days: That the workout in question was heavy but not sadistic, but the response -- both publicly and privately -- was lacking:

• The committee is as certain as possible that the strenuous squat-lifting workout the players did on Jan. 20 caused rhabdomyolysis in the 13 who were hospitalized, as well as serious muscle injuries to players who did not develop advanced rhabdomyolysis symptoms.

• The 13 players were in no way responsible for their own injuries. Rhabdomyolysis was not associated with use of prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, supplements or energy drinks.

• Heavy workouts of the type done on Jan. 20 had been conducted successfully in June 2004 and December 2007 and were not known to cause rhabdomyolysis. Therefore, the football coaches, strength coaches or athletic trainers did not have reason to suspect that a similar workout in 2011 would cause rhabdomyolysis in 13 players. However, timing of the 2011 workout was different than in 2004 and 2007. The 2004 workout occurred in June, and the 2007 workout was in December after a one-week break. The 2011 workout followed a three-week break.

• There was no evidence to support media and public claims that the workouts were intended to "punish" the football team or that the players were threatened with harsh treatment if they did not excel in the workouts. At a Jan. 18 meeting, the strength coach did make comments to the effect that last season's close losses should concern everyone in the football program, including players ... and that the workouts would determine "who wants to be here."

• Parents criticized the football program for a lack of communication, citing learning about the hospitalizations from the media and rare contact with coaches. They interpreted the fact that the head coach did not return immediately to campus as a lack of concern on his part for the affected players.

In other words, it might not have been smart to conduct this workout -- by all accounts, the hardest one-day training regimen in the Iowa S&C playbook -- the day after returning from a three-week holiday break, and it probably shouldn't happen again, but there was nothing mandating a firing or suspension (though apparently some parents thought the suspension of some staff during the investigation wouldn't be the worst thing ever). There were no signs of supplements or illegal substances that exacerbated the players' symptoms or led to the rhabdo outbreak. There was no sign the players were viciously overworked as punishment for a season that sputtered to its finish.

The story here, in both the rhabdomyolysis outbreak itself and the University of Iowa's handling of it, is one of poor preparation. The report doesn't explicitly say it, but it certainly implies that the players didn't return from three weeks spent at home eating turkey prepared to jump into heavy workouts. The report essentially admits that the strength and conditioning staff wasn't prepared for, or even knowledgeable about, rhabdomyolysis, and had no response when it began spreading through the team. And the report didn't need to tell us what the FOIA requests had already confirmed, that the athletic department wasn't anywhere near prepared for what to do once the press and public had it.

In the end, rhabdogate will end with a whimper rather than a bang. It's expected that all thirteen players who spent time in the hospital this January will be fully ready for today's first spring workout, their careers at Iowa largely unaffected. Nobody has transferred. Nobody has been fired. Today will likely pass with little to no acknowledgement from those who called for Ferentz or Doyle to be fired. As they have in the aftermath of other scandals, Ferentz and his program will learn from these mistakes and adjust; we can only hope the athletic department follows suit. Iowa football will live on, a little bit tougher, a little bit wiser, and -- we hope beyond all hope -- a lot more prepared.

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