Latest tragedy bolsters NU in Wheeler case

Dan Murtaugh Column

A sad story from a thousand miles away has become the best news Northwestern’s lawyers have heard since the school and eight of its employees were sued in the wrongful death of former football player Rashidi Wheeler.

On Feb. 17, in the middle of a hot afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed on the training field and later died.

The incident eerily echoed Wheeler’s death on Aug. 3, 2001. Both Wheeler and Bechler fell in the middle of sprints. Both were reportedly conscious, even talking, after their collapse. And both had ephedrine in their system when they died.

“The circumstances are chillingly familiar,” said Alan Cubbage, NU spokesman. “It’s really sad.”

While the trace amounts of ephedrine in Wheeler’s system weren’t linked to his death, the NCAA-banned substance is listed as a probable contributor to Bechler’s death. Therein lies the reason NU is paying attention.

About nine months after Wheeler’s family sued, NU pulled into the lawsuit five companies involved in producing and selling dietary supplements that include ephedrine. NU’s strategy is to convince people that the Cook County medical examiner was wrong in saying Wheeler died from bronchial asthma. The school is arguing that Wheeler used ephedrine, and it ultimately killed him.

One problem with the strategy is that NU is trying to place the blame on a legal substance sold over the counter in all states except Nebraska.

Although ephedrine has come under scrutiny before — in 1999 the Food and Drug Administration tried but failed to restrict its availability — it had never encountered public backlash.

That changed when the Broward County medical examiner linked ephedrine to Bechler’s death.

Now the substance is being ravaged by medical experts, politicians and authorities in the sports world. New York’s Suffolk County had already banned the substance, and now state senators are putting together a bill for a statewide ban. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has reportedly asked the players’ union to start talks on prohibiting ephedrine.

It’s impossible to predict the exact implications that the newfound distrust in ephedrine will have on the Wheeler lawsuit, but some things are obvious. If the suit goes to trial, jurors will be more aware of deaths to which ephedrine has been linked. And the current public relations nightmare for companies such as Cytodyne Technologies, which produces the dietary supplement Xenadrine, probably will make them more willing to fork over cash in a settlement instead of going through a trial.

However, settlement talk might be premature. Linda Will, Wheeler’s mother, has insisted repeatedly that she won’t let her lawyers settle unless NU fires its entire athletic department — an unlikely scenario.

“Anything involving ephedrine right now, Northwestern will try to expound on that,” Will said. “They’re trying to deflect responsibility away from the fact that they pushed Rashidi beyond physical and emotional boundaries.”

Will’s protests aside, anything bad for ephedrine is good for NU, and Bechler’s death might save the university millions.

Dan Murtaugh is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]