AMES, Iowa — A University of Iowa investigative committee said Wednesday the school should scrap an intense workout that left 13 football players hospitalized, conceding that whatever triggered their injuries remains a mystery.
The five-member panel’s report clears the players, trainers and coaches of any wrongdoing, saying similar workouts have been done in the past without any injuries. The January workout, however, led to the 13 football players being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, which breaks down muscle cells and discolors urine. All the players were treated and none show any lasting effects.
“We’re not able to tell you exactly why it happened,” said committee member William Hines, a law professor and dean emeritus at the university’s College of Law. “We can speculate … but that’s a mystery that will have to remain unsolved.”
University President Sally Mason appointed the committee, which released its findings to the Board of Regents on Wednesday.
The report lists 10 recommendations, including abandoning the strenuous workout, which includes back squats with heavy weights. It also calls for everyone associated with the football program to be educated about rhabdomyolysis.
When members of a team become ill or injured after a strenuous workout, all others on the team should be tested to make sure they’re not suffering from a condition, according to the report.
Another recommendation suggests the university address long-term health needs of athletes affected by the Jan. 20 incident, including the possible need for psychological counseling. The report said communication with players, their parents and guardians and the public “were not handled well” in that incident.
Committee members said their investigation found that incidents of rhabomyolysis among student athletes happen more than people realize, but are often unreported.
“That leads to low incidence level of how many people exhibit rhabdo,” said committee member Kevin Kregel, a health and human physiology professor at the university.
Kregel said the timing of the workout, which followed a three-week layoff after the Hawkeyes’ Insight Bowl win over Missouri in December, may have been a factor. But he said the team wouldn’t have expected any problems since similar workouts in June 2004 and December 2007 went smoothly.
“The players were completely blameless,” he said. “They did the squats as instructed. They exhibited no risky behavior. These athletes did not ingest any legal or illegal substances that would have contributed to this outbreak.”
He said the coaches and trainers also “did nothing knowingly wrong.”
Head football coach Kirk Ferentz said in a statement Wednesday that he had no explanation as to why players who did the January workout were injured when no problems were experienced by athletes in past years.
“It’d be nice to know why this time and not the other three times,” Ferentz said, referring to the 2004 and 2007 workouts and one in 2000 that the committee report does not mention. “I was glad the committee was clear in saying that the players were not at fault and the staff was not at fault.
“We will not do that drill again. That’s one thing we have learned for sure.”
Athletic Director Gary Barta said he will move forward with the committee’s recommendations.
“Many of the things recommended are already things being recommended or we’re going through,” he said. “Everything is rational and makes sense.”
Hines said the incident with the Hawkeye football players is “clearly a wake-up call not only for Iowa but the entire country.” He said the awareness that’s been created by the Iowa players’ injuries will help prevent future incidents elsewhere.
“The word is out that some of these things can cross the line before you’re aware of it,” Hines said.
Barta said it’s critical to find a balance between being competitive and safe.
“We have to make sure we’re educating ourselves and our athletes,” he said. “You can still be a tough guy and be safe.”
He said it’s important to find those limitations and encourage athletes who are injured to step forward. All 13 players injured in January have been cleared for training and competition, he said.
The parents and guardians of the players have been sent a letter and a copy of the report.