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Canzano: Buckle up -- high-stakes case takes shape in Oregon courtroom
Willie Taggart, University of Oregon, NCAA among defendants.
EUGENE — Willie Taggart arrived in Courtroom 303 at the Lane County Courthouse on Tuesday wearing a blue suit, blue tie, white button-down dress shirt and a pair of eyeglasses. The one-time University of Oregon football coach sat behind counsel table, left of the bench.
A former Ducks’ football player was there, too. Doug Brenner was hospitalized in 2017 after a series of grueling offseason workouts caused what he now claims are permanent injuries. The lawsuit seeks $125 million and names the NCAA, UO, Taggart and former strength coach Irele Oderinde as defendants.
Lawyers select juries in a process known as “voir dire,” in which the judge and attorneys for both sides ask potential jurors questions. The lawyers representing the various parties waded into the jury pool on Tuesday, strategizing and questioning. By the end of business, they’d have 12 jurors and a handful of alternates.
Two potential jurors were dismissed early on Tuesday after indicating they were die-hard Ducks’ fans still miffed that Taggart ditched Oregon for Florida State.
Said one of them, "Yeah, I'm mad at him for leaving after a year."
One retired female juror announced she was biased against “big corporations” and said “something happened and these boys need to be heard.” It prompted an observing attorney sitting in the back of the courtroom to whisper, “She’ll be gone in two questions.”
He was wrong.
It took seven. But she was struck.
The jury took shape. It’s an interesting group. Among those who made the cut were two jurors who said they had medical backgrounds. One other told the court that he attended law school and passed the bar but never practiced law. A fourth juror works as a personal trainer. Another is ex-military who served in Iraq.
One observer in the courtroom noted, “lots of salt of the Earth” types.
Some notes here:
• Legal experts in the courtroom noticed that the Oregon-based lawyers for the university huddled often with the attorneys representing Taggart and Oderinde. The NCAA’s East-Coast based group of attorneys also huddled together off to the side. But the two groups of defendant lawyers did not consult with each other during jury selection.
• At one point the lawyers for all sides went into the courtroom hallway during a recess to speak privately. The jury remained behind, and an open microphone captured some of their conversation. Noted one juror who was selected, “I’m dreading eating hamburgers for lunch for the next three weeks.”
• The plaintiffs originally asked for $25 million. They amended their lawsuit in March and tacked on an additional $100 million ask for punitive damages, but only against the NCAA. It’s a clever strategy. The prevailing thought is that a Eugene-based jury might not feel inclined to hammer UO with nine-figures in damages, but would be less empathetic toward the Indianapolis-based governing body of college athletics.
The former UO football player at the center of the case will soon outline the damages he believes he suffered during those off-season workouts. Brenner will talk about trash cans brought out for players to vomit in and oxygen tanks that were carried in on the second day of workouts. He will recount how Taggart told the team shortly after being hired that he was, “going to find the snakes in the grass and cut their heads off.”
Brenner told me after his hospitalization, “They took years off my life.”
Attorney Greg Kafoury represents Brenner. He’s a seasoned litigator with a reputation of getting great results for his clients. Said one attorney who has opposed him in court, “It’s the way he looks, the way he speaks, the tone of his voice, and how comfortable he is in the court room.
“It tends to put you at ease.”
Kafoury, however, struck a different tone, at least early in the proceedings on Tuesday. He was abrasive with the potential jurors. He pressed a few for answers. It caused some to wonder what he might be thinking. Perhaps, Kafoury took a stronger opening stance because he smelled blood in the water. After all, the NCAA’s lead attorney began the day with a softer tone, apologizing to the plaintiffs numerous times.
Be sure — there is a lot at stake here.
Brenner feels wronged and wants $125 million in justice. Taggart and Oderinde badly want this lawsuit behind them with as little financial and professional damage as possible. The university denies any wrongdoing and wants this gone without a substantial hit. The NCAA probably feels like it’s only here because it has deep pockets.
Feels ripe for a settlement, doesn’t it?
Except for the conflicting agendas of the defendants and their splintered attorneys, that is. I doubt the NCAA wants to absorb an eight-or-nine figure settlement on its own. Taggart and Oderinde won’t want to publicly acknowledge they acted irresponsibly. And UO doesn’t think it did anything wrong. The university won’t want to admit it didn’t properly care for its student athletes. In this, the plaintiff’s attorneys appear to have successfully divided the prey in the courtroom.
Taggart is an interesting participant. There are lots of bad feelings about the manner in which he departed Eugene. Most have moved on, noting that his successor, Mario Cristobal, won multiple Pac-12 titles. Still, he’s a polarizing figure in this drama.
The jury will be sworn in today. Opening statements will follow. Included on the list of those who will testify in the trial is a long line of ex-Ducks’ players including former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. The case has the potential for a massive ripple effect across college athletics. I suspect this lawsuit will be widely followed should it go the distance in the next three weeks.
The way coaches condition players and the certification process for strength coaches is all in play in this case. Other universities will take notice of what happens. The NCAA may alter its workout policies. We’re told this is the offseason. It sure doesn’t feel like it in Eugene.
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