Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe Must Stop Ignoring the Prichard Colon Case
Virginia DPOR’s Handling of Case is a Black Eye for the State of Virginia
By Marc Londo
In Jorge Castillo’s recent Washington Post story “Prichard Colón has been in a vegetative state since 2015 bout, but his parents fight on,” the sad reality that stems from Colon’s ill-fated bout in Fairfax, Virginia, is profound. He is “trapped” in a broken body. The term “Unresponsive Wakefulness” has been part of popular discussion as a result of the recent Otto Warmbier case. Castillo’s story revealed Colon is showing some response but he remains in a vegetative state. Now, almost 2 years removed from that day, the family lacks the resources to give Prichard the care that he needs.
Pictured: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe posing with the VMI Boxing Team. Photo Credit: VMI Cadet Life
Prichard’s case is soon going to be heard in a Washington D.C. courtroom. However, there is another branch of government that has been turning a deaf ear. There has not been a single word from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on the matter. While Virginia continues to employ controversial boxing commissioner David Holland, many are asking “what has changed?”
Governor McAuliffe enjoys the sport of boxing. Last February 27, 2016, before a rowdy sellout crowd at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., McAuliffe watched D.C. native Ty Barnett return from a near two year layoff to take on trial horse Daniel Attah. It was a brutal bout that saw Barnett floor the journeyman 3 times as the crowd roared its approval. By Round 8, Attah’s shaky legs could not hold him up any longer. He kept falling to the ground, only to attempt to re-engage. The fight eventually ended after the referee had enough. It was Attah’s ninth loss in a row and a rousing return for Barnett.
Nevertheless, the return of Ty Barnett was just a side note in a more significant story that McAuliffe bore witness to. That event marked the in-ring return of referee Joseph “Thunder” Cooper, a man under heavy scrutiny for his responsibility in Prichard Colon’s present vegetative state.
Was Governor McAuliffe aware that the last time Cooper refereed he donned a Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) patch for Colon’s ill-fated bout? Did he witness the more than 30 rabbit punches that left Colon in a persistent vegetative state?
Photo Credit: Wallace Barron
That nationally televised bout has been the subject of international scrutiny since Colon was left fighting for his life. Four days after Prichard Colon fought Terrel Williams, the Washington Post announced the DPOR had launched an official investigation. Consequently, Cooper was a focus since he was overheard telling Colon repeatedly – seven times – “you take care of it” as Colon protested the back-of-the-head “rabbit” punches. In the days that followed, the DPOR said it would investigate “the situation, the incident and the cause.” With a public campaign around the cause of Colon’s coma, why wasn’t Joseph Cooper on Governor McAuliffe’s radar that night?
The optics are troublesome. McAuliffe has kept a relatively high-profile in the boxing community, whether he’s seen out with the likes of Don King and Gerry Cooney or posing for photo ops with the VMI Boxing team. However, as Colon was left fighting for his life, he didn’t once acknowledge him. When Prichard Colon’s circumstances grew dire, many well-known personalities offered their prayers and concern. But McAuliffe was invisible. Why? It’s not every day so much attention is focused on Fairfax, Virginia. To be such a boxing fan that he would attend a small local boxing card, the idea that the Governor would not be aware of such a high profile incident seems a stretch. It’s also a stretch that Joseph Cooper would not catch his attention. At the time, Cooper was still perceived as a central figure in the DPOR’s public inquest. As a reporter following this beat, I was corresponding with DPOR Deputy Director Nick Christner regularly. On February 8, Christner assured me that their office was still investigating and they were just weeks from a conclusion.
That proved to be false. It would be much longer before the DPOR released anything regarding these public efforts. English and Spanish media had been checking in weekly. In the meantime, McAuliffe sat ringside as a man that was under public scrutiny by his administration refereed another fight in Washington D.C.
Something was amiss. After a later request in March for an update, Christner unexpectedly responded with a ‘mea culpa’ (on March 15), clarifying his report was not an investigation. He described it as a descriptive internal document, stating, “Hi. In no certain order, later this week, I will have something to give you regarding my internal review,” he wrote. “It’s not an ‘investigation’ and was primarily completed for our use. As of now, I don’t plan on doing any interviews,” adding, “mostly because my review was for our internal use and this was not an investigation trying to determine many different things, like much of the public has thought/expected.”
“NOT AN INVESTIGATION TRYING TO DETERMINE MANY DIFFERENT THINGS…”
Christner further replied that his performance ‘review’ of referee Joseph Cooper and ringside doctor Richard Ashby was done (by himself) using footage that he accessed through Facebook. When asked for clarification on his statement that the DPOR report was not in fact an investigation that sought “to determine” Christner offered no response. Instead, the very next morning, the DPOR swiftly issued a press release that they inexplicably titled “Investigation Report.” It was a significant shift in language from Christner’s emails, and it offered an actual decision regarding the performances of the DPOR’s hired (and appointed) officials, decreeing “while Colon’s medical condition following the contest against Williams is tragic, there is not one action so apparent and/or egregious to justify laying blame to any one person.”
As the author of that document, Christner privately wasn’t comfortable making public his impressions of how the referee, ringside doctor, and commissioner performed that day. Yet, its presentation by the department as an investigation implied their officials were not at fault. The lack of independent experts to analyze the fight footage was problematic but the Virginia DPOR’s misrepresentation of Christner’s review was outright deception. Hall of Fame referee Larry Hazzard Sr. has been outspoken about Cooper’s “incompetence” in the fight, particularly regarding his “reluctance to enforce the rules by utilizing the point deductions and DQ options at his disposal.” Dr. John Stiller, sitting board member on the Association of Ringside Physicians, publicly denounced the performance of Doctor Ashby, saying “after Prichard went down in the 7th Round, the fight should have been stopped at that moment and I still cannot think of a medically sound reason it wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, the DPOR’s questionable document has woven its way into the narrative of the event. Commissions in other states look at rulings in other jurisdictions, so the Christner review offered the appearance of a pardon for the DPOR officials. Even though Washington D.C. hasn’t used Referee Cooper since the co-promoted Mayweather Promotions and Head Bangers Boxing card on April 1, 2016, the Chairperson for the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission, Adam Weers, says the Christner review is a factor in whether to allow him to referee there. In seeking further clarification on why Christner pivoted so quickly on his stance that his review was not “an investigation trying to determine,” I contacted his supervisor Jay DeBoer, a legal consultant appointed by Governor McAuliffe as Director of the DPOR. His response raised more troubling questions about the DPOR’s capacity to regulate their boxing program.
DeBoer admitted he overruled Christner and ordered an “Investigation Report” sent out. When probed on the reports lack of expert testimony, referencing what Hazzard Sr. said about the performance of Joseph Cooper, DeBoer was defensive, claiming that any conclusion would be subjective. He said “by law, the DPOR’s regulatory jurisdiction extends only to licensees, not to vendors (contract referees and contract physicians) and not to employees, including David Holland.”
Essentially, DeBoer said the actions of his staff were beyond reproach or discipline, regardless of what Williams was permitted to do in the ring. Without explaining how over 30 illegal rabbit punches can be considered subjective, DeBoer deflected any and all responsibility, and avoided an important question: If no one with a Virginia DPOR patch on their shirt can be held accountable, why did their department go out of their way to absolve their employees in a faux investigation, which in itself was subjective?
THE TONE DEAF ATTITUDE IN VIRGINIA IN OUR CURRENT CTE LANDSCAPE
In the current national climate surrounding head injuries in contact sports, the answer to that question was obvious. As Governor McAuliffe has said, “Everybody in this public arena makes statements and gets interpreted different ways.” By releasing their ‘official’ report, the Virginia DPOR was attempting to muddy the narrative surrounding the fight as the number of critics continued to mount. To this day, their department has not released the files they based their analysis on. Even though DeBoer claimed his department offered their conclusions in the “spirit of transparency,” the interviews the DPOR conducted with Williams, Ashby, Cooper, and others remain sealed because the Colons refused to participate. We submitted a Freedom of Information request for the case file, which was subsequently denied.
The contradictions that surround McAuliffe and the DPOR are incomprehensible. On the 5th of May 2017, ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported the Colons filed suit on ringside Dr. Richard Ashby for medical malpractice as well as event co-promoters Head Bangers Boxing and DiBella Entertainment, for negligence. When contacted by ESPN, the Virginia DPOR once again refused a Freedom of Information request to see their case files and re-asserted that the DPOR doesn’t license or discipline ring doctors and referees (or their Program Administrator, Holland). They claim the case to be still open since the Colons wouldn’t talk to them and added that their files were off limits to the public. Meanwhile, Governor McAuliffe has been equally evasive. He’s made no attempt to contact the Colons. No hospital visit. Not so much as a tweet. In the time he took to go to the fights in Washington D.C., he could have made either gesture.
At best, McAuliffe has shown a remarkable lack of good common sense. At worst, he views these athletes as fodder, who are just good for entertainment. So, given the roadblocks that the DPOR has put in place, what are we to expect will change in Virginia? DPOR Program Administrator (acting commissioner) David Holland hasn’t had to answer for his actions that day. It was Holland’s claims that Prichard Colon was “stalling” and “faking” that had untold influence over how his staff performed that bout. Is it so unreasonable to conclude that his accusations might have persuaded the ringside doctor to ignore obvious signs of brain trauma, as Colon gestured to the base of his neck and complained of dizziness? How could they not? A system of accountability must be in place in Virginia. If just one official in Fairfax would have been competent, Colon would still be of sound body and mind.
There is no place in professional boxing for Virginia DPOR Program Administrator David Holland. Unlike Governor McAuliffe’s Redskins, Boxers don’t have equipment to mitigate the lasting effects of illegal head blows. CTE and TBI is a very real threat. However, the Virginia PR campaign and its adherence to the status quo is an even bigger threat. The fact that the state has put no measures in place to ensure this will never happen again is madness in the current era of sports medicine. It’s almost as crazy as allowing Holland to remain in power as the acting commissioner of Virginia boxing. The idea this cavalier behavior would come from a Governor that has engaged the boxing community for public photo ops is unbelievable. Instead of sending out more propaganda, McAuliffe and his appointees should be doing all they can to make their rings safer.
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