Lawsuit: Ex-Mater Dei football player alleges hazing led to brain injury

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Duncanville, TX - August 27: Mater Dei Monarchs head coach Bruce Rollinson before the game against the Duncanville Panthers in Panther Stadium on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021 in Duncanville, TX. (Jerome Miron / For the LA Times)
Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson is accused of looking the other way while players engaged in hazing rituals in a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday. (Jerome Miron / For the L.A. Times)

A former Santa Ana Mater Dei High football player's family filed a lawsuit Tuesday that described a culture of hazing within the nationally acclaimed program that left their son with a traumatic brain injury.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Orange County Superior Court and names Mater Dei and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange as defendants, documents a hazing ritual known as "Bodies" during which two players fight "until [one] can't take it anymore and gives up."

"The unwritten rules involve limiting their punches to the torso area between the shoulders and hips," the complaint reads.

"In an effort to fit in and be perceived as tough amongst teammates, the players sacrifice their physical health, beating each other in a sickening display that is at times videotaped by other players."

The court filing describes an altercation on Feb. 4 that targeted the plaintiff, who was a junior at the time and has since left the school, that went far beyond the torso blows typically administered as the team sought to build toughness and bolster its reputation as the top football program in the country.

The plaintiff had previously played other sports at Mater Dei but was a newcomer to the football program, whose fall season was postponed until the late winter because of a COVID-19 interruption.

An athlete referred to as Teammate 1 in the lawsuit encouraged the plaintiff to participate in Bodies with Teammate 2, the son of a Mater Dei assistant football coach. In an effort to fit in, the lawsuit stated, the plaintiff agreed to participate in the fight against his much larger opponent.

As a result of his decision to participate, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office does not plan to file charges in the case and views the altercation as mutual combat, according to Southern California News Group, which first reported the story.

The fight began in the freshman locker room and spilled into the varsity locker room, with no staff stepping in to stop the blows, the lawsuit states. The plaintiff's family obtained video of the incident that captures teammates shouting to Teammate 2 to "get that N word," referring to the plaintiff, who is white.

It was a clear mismatch, according to video viewed by the Southern California News Group, with the plaintiff's swings badly missing and Teammate 2 repeatedly connecting on punches to the head and face that knocked the smaller athlete to the ground.

The plaintiff is heard on the video saying to Teammate 2, “I thought we were playing Bodies,” according to the lawsuit, questioning why he was hit in the head and face instead of the torso. Teammate 2 responded with additional racial slurs.

According to the the lawsuit, no Mater Dei staff intervened on behalf of the injured player, who struggled to stop blood coming from both sides of his face.

He was told "not to snitch," according to the lawsuit, and when an athletic trainer eventually examined his injuries, he said he had hit his face on a sink. The lawsuit alleges the trainer didn't call for medical assistance and didn't contact the plaintiff's parents for 90 minutes.

When the plaintiff's father arrived at the school, he questioned the trainers about the explanation for his son's injuries and lack of prompt treatment before taking him to a nearby urgent care facility. The player was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. A specialist determined his nasal fractures required immediate surgery to repair and reconstruct his nose.

He stayed home from school for weeks recovering and experienced pain, slurred speech and cognitive dysfunction, the lawsuit states. The player changed his hair style and wears more hats in an effort to hide two defined scars above his eyes. He also has been through counseling to help cope with memories of the altercation.

The lawsuit alleges that Mater Dei staff took extensive steps to minimize fallout from the fight. The school and Teammate 2 did not cooperate with a police investigation, suggested a search of player phones turned up no video of the incident that the plaintiff's legal team later discovered and were reluctant to discipline players or stop the hazing tradition.

“If I had a hundred dollars for every time these kids played Bodies or Slappies, I’d be a millionaire,” Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson told the plaintiff's father soon after the incident, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges Rollinson, in a subsequent interview with police, said he had "no knowledge of Bodies, or any form of hazing."

The plaintiff's father says Rollinson, who has led Mater Dei to two national championships, told him he was "in a bind" from a disciplinary perspective because Teammate 2's father was an assistant coach.

When the plaintiff transferred from Mater Dei, the lawsuit states, his transfer paperwork flagged him with a "disciplinary restriction" that made him ineligible to participate in California Interscholastic Federation sports.

"Despicably, Mater Dei staff told plaintiff’s father that had plaintiff remained at Mater Dei, he would not have been restricted from participating in Mater Dei sports," the lawsuit read. "In sum, because Plaintiff withdrew from Mater Dei and left the school out of safety concerns, Mater Dei knowingly took steps to prevent Plaintiff from participating in sports at his new school."

The plaintiff's new school has since gained permission from CIF to allow him to participate in some sports.

The former Mater Dei player's family alleges negligence, violation of California's hazing penal code, failure to properly protect the player and infliction of emotional distress. They are seeking damages to be determined during a trial along with medical expenses, legal costs, interest and any other relief the court deems proper.

Mater Dei has not yet filed a response in court.

Father Walter Jenkins, the president of Mater Dei, released a letter Wednesday that stated the school was limited in how it could respond due to pending litigation and privacy laws.

"Please know that we take the matter seriously and commit to you that all aspects will be handled consistently and in accordance with the core values of our institution," Jenkins wrote. "At this time, I respectfully ask for your faith and trust as we navigate the process ahead."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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