Attorneys: UNM Football Player Who Died Was Failed By University, Coaches, NCAA

Sep 10, 2020

Late last year, Nahje Flowers, a lineman for UNM’s football team, died by suicide after a long battle with depression noted by family and friends. His family is suing the university, the NCAA and former head coach Bob Davie, who they say ignored Flowers’ pleas for help and time off and forced him to keep playing. They’re represented by Ben Crump, the nationally known lawyer, who’s also bringing cases forward on behalf of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona spoke with Crump and Mica Hilaire, who is the lead attorney on the lawsuit.

KUNM: Attorney Crump, you take on these huge cases all around the country and many people reach out to your firm for representation. What made you choose to pick up this case in New Mexico?

CRUMP: Quite frankly, you want to be able to help people who don't have a voice, to be able to challenge the Goliath institutions. In the case of Nahje Flowers, when his father called it was just heartbreaking when he relayed to me that the coaches knew about his mental issues that he were having to endure, but yet they disregarded his mental health because they said his only worst was him performing on that football field on Saturdays. When I think about the fact that you have a large percentage of African Americans who are out here playing NCAA football, that Nahje could be one of several. So that's why I knew we had to get involved. It’s a case that could have larger implications on the sport and society.

KUNM: The complaint speaks to the severe head injury and brain trauma football players endure and the NCAA is obligated to protect them. Do you believe the NCAA is partly to blame for Flowers’ death?

HILAIRE: Absolutely. You know, Nahje was failed all around. He was failed by the coaching staff, failed by the university, failed by the physicians who saw him, who didn't adequately prescribe the proper medication nor supervise him when giving him antidepressants, and then you have the NCAA, which, you know, they have a contract with its players and the NCAA was founded to protect athletes. That's why this case is so very important because while we are seeking justice for Nahje, the greater impacts of this case on athletes across America are going to be important.

KUNM: In the article in the student newspaper at UNM, the Daily Lobo, one of his friends says Flowers had been hurting for a long time. Can you show that he was experiencing symptoms of brain trauma from football?

HILAIRE: So what we are endeavoring to do is get our own independent examiner to review Nahje’s brain tissue. So what we do know, at a minimum, is that there were early signs of head trauma. And irrespective of that, we do know that he had signs of depression.

KUNM: The complaint points out that Lobo football players who were White were given time off, but Flowers never was, even though he kept asking because of severe headaches from concussions, depression and a shoulder injury. How does this happen? What is going on in UNM’s program?

CRUMP: We want to examine whether there's a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, or implicit bias as it relates to the way Coach Bob Davie and his staff treated minority players versus the White players. This comes down to this notion of the marginalization of Black and Brown bodies in America, the fact that, you know, when you go back to slavery, you look at this notion that it's about these Black bodies being used by the American institutions for the benefit of a capitalistic society. And for what – a football game? Is that the value of a Black life? ‘You have to play this football game, even if it calls you your life.’ That cannot be the message. I stand with the Flowers family in saying: America, we can do better. NCAA, we can do better. University of New Mexico, We can do better, and we must do better.

If you're experiencing a mental health crisis, or just feeling down and want to talk to someone:

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This interview originally aired in an episode of No More Normal, a collaboration between KUNM, the Santa Fe Reporter, and New Mexico PBS. You can hear an extended version of the interview on the showpage. Subscribe to No More Normal wherever you get your podcasts.