Months after University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke and dehydration during an offseason summer workout, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents has received a 198-page report, following an eight-week investigation, on the conditions of the program led by now-suspended Coach DJ Durkin. The report, which was received by The Washington Post, appears to attempt to whitewash the atmosphere of bullying and intimidation that characterized Durkin’s tenure.
The authors write, “The commission found that the Maryland football team did not have a ‘toxic culture,’ but it did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” They go on to describe and confirm newspaper reports of bullying by former strength coach Rick Court, who failed to respond when McNair began to exhibit signs of heatstroke and goaded other players to “drag his ass” around the field when he became ill. Court has been accused of pressing a weight machine on a player’s neck, pushing over a player who had worked out to the point of vomiting, and more. He left the program after McNair’s death—not with a pending indictment for negligence, but with a $315,000 salary payout.
In spite of this, the authors insist that, “by definition, Maryland’s football culture was not toxic. … In light of our conclusion that Maryland’s football culture was not ‘toxic,’ we do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.”
This is a case of “don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining.” Any program in which bullying leads to the death of an athlete is by definition toxic. The pointed denial of this fact in the report speaks to a desire to protect a football program in which the school has invested tens of millions of dollars. Durkin and his multimillion-dollar salary may become casualties of the outrage that engulfed the campus after McNair’s death. But what cannot be sacrificed is the school’s high-profile move from the ACC to the Big Ten conference, or the construction of a new state-of-the-art indoor practice facility, or the fund-raising operations aimed at boosters and corporate sponsors to get the program off the ground.
An enormous amount of money is at risk. This isn’t Alabama or Ohio State, where the football program is too big to fail. Big-time football is still in its infancy at the University of Maryland. Many on campus are still uncomfortable over the transfer of wealth and energy from other university priorities to football. Jordan McNair’s death has the potential to scuttle the entire operation before it has the chance to pay off.
As the Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote:
Let’s say a fraternity boy died on the University of Maryland campus after being hazed. The University of Maryland System Board of Regents wouldn’t need four months, two reports and a seven-hour secret meeting to figure out the right response. The frat would be expelled from campus, and perpetrators of abuse would face criminal charges. But because Jordan McNair died at the hands of a football program backed by high-dollar donors, everyone seems confused about what needs to happen.
This commission report is an attempt to perfume something rancid. Durkin needs to go, as do those who oversaw this toxicity, namely President Wallace D. Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans. There needs instead to be a commission to report on how a school could allow Big Football to come in, leave Jordan McNair dead, and then spur those in power to reveal the worst sides of themselves.