Family Accuses College of Forcing Ailing Son to Play Football

As the University of New Mexico football team endured another losing season last fall, Nahje Flowers, a defensive lineman, began complaining to friends and counselors about his coaches forcing him to play, even though he had injuries, severe headaches and depression.

On Nov. 5, he sent an early-morning text message “like he is saying goodbye” to friends, saying that his antidepressants “were not helping him.” By the time a friend raced to his apartment, Flowers was dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to an Albuquerque Police Department report. He was 21.

Last week, Flowers’s parents, in their first public comments since their son’s death, announced at a virtual news conference that they had filed a federal lawsuit in New Mexico alleging negligence by the university; Bob Davie, the team’s coach at the time; and the N.C.A.A.

The lawsuit accuses Davie of ignoring medical advice recommending that Flowers take a break from the sport. Black and white Lobos athletes were treated differently, the lawsuit claims, in that white athletes were given time off to recover from injuries, while Flowers was not. And for decades, the lawsuit contends, the N.C.A.A. failed to protect players, like Flowers, with signs of brain injuries.

“I was assured that the University of New Mexico family would take deva of him,” the player’s mother, Vickie Gilmore, said. She was flanked by her husband, La’Vonte Flowers, and one of their lawyers, Mika Hilaire, in Hilaire’s office in Los Angeles. “I never imagined that he would return home by funeral arrangements.”

Benjamin Crump, another Flowers family lawyer, zeroed in on the N.C.A.A.

“At best, they turned a blind eye, not following their procedures appropriately,” he said from Milwaukee, where he was headed to a news conference on behalf of another client, the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was recently shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. “At worst, they just did not deva enough about the young man who played football’s health when it stood in contrast to the big business of college football.”

The N.C.A.A. declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages on nine counts, including wrongful death, negligence and civil rights violations.

The lawsuit comes at a fraught time for the Lobos. All Mountain West teams are adapting to the postponement of fall sports, because of the coronavirus, and the anticipated loss of revenue from football. The university is also reeling from the recent shooting death of J.B. White, a basketball recruit from Santa Fe, N.M., who had reclassified from the class of 2021 so he could play for the Lobos this winter.

Then there is the long shadow of Davie, who was dismissed shortly after Flowers’s death. A former head coach at Notre Dame and ESPN analyst, Davie compiled a 35-64 record over eight years, and was suspended for 30 days in 2018 after being accused of mistreating players. He had two years left on his contract.

In an email, a lawyer for Davie, Michael K. Kennedy, said that his client had not yet seen the Flowers family’s complaint. But he said that “media reports suggesting that he overruled medical advice given to Mr. Flowers are absolutely false.”

Cinnamon Blair, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer, said she could not comment on any litigation. But she said that “the mental and physical well-being of our students is of the greatest importance to the University of New Mexico, and the loss of a student is tragic and affects the entire Lobo community deeply.”

The university awarded Flowers a posthumous degree in sign language interpreting in a virtual ceremony in May.

Flowers was a 6-foot-3, 278-pound redshirt junior out of Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. He wore No. 93 for the Lobos.

During the 2019 season, Flowers “wanted time away from the game due to the constant pain he was in from concussions he had sustained,” the complaint states. “But defendant Robert Davie refused to listen to Nahje and Nahje’s doctors, and forced him to continue playing.”

Robert C. Hilliard, another Flowers family lawyer, who is based in Corpus Christi, Texas, added during the news conference that Lobos assistant coaches “were compassionate, but they answered to the coach.”

The day after Flowers’s death, Davie emailed university officials to convey his concerns — going back a few months, he claimed — that “the counseling our student-athletes were receiving was ‘inadequate’ because of resources and lack of personnel,” according to documents obtained by Daniel Libit of N.M. Fishbowl, which monitors Lobos athletics.

So the questions of who knew what, and when, at the university and N.C.A.A. levels are likely to be central to the lawsuit.

“Never mind my blog,” said Libit, who now runs The Intercollegiate, a college sports news site. “You could dedicate several social science academic journals just to the analysis of the ethical and managerial failings that surrounded Bob Davie’s reign and its dawdling termination.”

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