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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: What message does Plancher ruling send?

TAMPA — One day last month, while writing about Johnny Manziel and his autographs and whether or not college football players should be paid, I saw this Internet headline:

$10M Verdict in UCF-Ereck Plancher Case Overturned.

We need to be appalled.

Ereck Plancher was an 18-year-old University of Central Florida football player who died five years ago after offseason conditioning drills. Two years ago, his parents won a wrongful death suit against the UCF Athletics Association, or UCFAA.

A jury found UCF football coach George O'Leary and his staff negligent. Plancher carried the sickle-cell trait, and the jury ruled that O'Leary and his staff initially ignored Plancher's distress and the football program's strict procedures regarding athletes with the sickle-cell trait. The jury awarded the Planchers $10 million. The UCFAA and its insurance company appealed, which was their right.

Now, a Florida appeals court has slashed the jury award to $200,000.

What's right about that?

In money-everywhere college football, what's right about that?

The appeals court ruled that the UCFAA was part of a state institution. The jury had decided the opposite, finding that the UCFAA, while created by the school, was enough of a private entity, a business (college sports a business — imagine that), to not be protected by a state law that puts a $200,000 cap on payments for lawsuits against state agencies, with the legislature needing to approve any additional sum. Good luck.

Just ask Devard Darling. His identical twin brother, Devaughn, who carried the sickle-cell trait like Ereck Plancher, died in 2001 during offseason drills at Florida State. FSU reached a $2 million settlement with the Darling family, but to this date, they've collected ... $200,000.

Now comes the Plancher decision.

“Where's the humanity here?” Devard Darling said. “To me, this is a question of morality. These are real families, and this is real suffering. Where's the decency?”

Tampa's Steve Yerrid, the Planchers' attorney, will appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Yerrid said, “It's like this: You pick the wrong school, you make the wrong choice, you get killed, and your family doesn't get justice.”

Understand something here, something important:

The jury's verdict remains unchanged.

Even while reducing the jury award, appellate court judge Wendy Berger wrote:

“My opinion ... should not be interpreted to condone the egregious conduct of the UCFAA coaching staff. Indeed, as it appears and the jury found, it was both the coaching staff's actions and in-actions that led to the tragic death of Ereck Plancher. It is difficult to comprehend how one human being can ignore another in obvious distress or prevent someone else from offering aid to someone in distress, but, inexplicably, that is what happened here.”

The Orlando Sentinel, and Sentinel sports columnist Mike Bianchi, did extraordinary work before, during and after the Plancher trial. Last month, Bianchi quoted a juror from the trial, who said, “I don't know what a life is worth, but we thought $10 million would at least send a message to UCF and other schools to do the right thing.”

What's the message now?

Think about Ereck Plancher and Devaughn Darling and their families the next time some college athletics association raises millions to expand a stadium or a salary.

George O'Leary is still UCF coach. O'Leary said this after last month's ruling:

“I think it's a great victory for UCF, but it's still a tragedy. As I said earlier, I think he was a great kid, just a tragedy occurred. It's a shame that so many other things occur with stuff like that, but I'm glad basically the verdict came like it should have come. Obviously, we've got the appeal won, so I think it's great for the university. But I still say prayers for Ereck Plancher.”

I think it's a great victory for UCF ...

Devard Darling and his brother were Florida State teammates. “He was my angel here on Earth, and he still is,” said Devard, who left FSU for Washington State and played receiver in the NFL. He's now a financial adviser in Houston. His mother, Wendy, is there. She has battled thyroid cancer. Devaughn is buried in Houston, in his FSU uniform. He'd be 31.

“No amount of money can ever bring my brother back,” Devard said. ”We're just talking about closure. About humanity. This (Plancher) case reminds you. ... This needs to be in the forefront of everyone's mind. Lives are being lost. And this is what happens. It's disgusting, actually.”

George O'Leary is reportedly making $1.4 million this season.

UCF plays at Florida International tonight.

I'm pulling for the Planchers, all the way.

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