Maryland and McNair Keep College Football Problems on the Front Page
The saga begins on May 29th, 2018 on a practice field at the University of Maryland’s football facility. Off-season means conditioning, and conditioning means sprints. Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jordan McNair ran 110 yards, back and forth. He showed signs of exhaustion and heatstroke; his body temperature reached 106 degrees; and he ran until he couldn’t. Two weeks later, he died of heatstroke at a nearby hospital.
In the past decade, headlines featuring college sports have been popping up farther and farther from the pages of Sports Illustrated and the broadcasts of ESPN. First, there were the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape. At the University of North Carolina, administrators were criticized for having student-athletes take “paper classes,” which were significantly easier than standard classes. Scandals ousted head football coaches at Ohio State, Baylor, and Arkansas. Ed O’Bannon took up a class action suit against the NCAA. Rick Pitino lost his job and a national title, only to see Urban Meyer slide by. Maryland Terrapin football is just the latest program to see its name in bold.
The details of McNair’s death and its handling by university administrators have been well covered. On Tuesday, October 30th, it seemed like Head Coach DJ Durkin had prevailed, as the University System of Maryland Board of Regents reinstated him against the recommendation of Wallace D. Loh, president of the flagship UM campus at College Park. Loh agreed to retire at the end of the school year, but his football problem needed fixing just a day later. On Halloween, Loh fired Durkin, leaving his position officially vacant eight games into the season. The Terrapins sit at 5-4, 3-3 Big Ten and face another coaching overhaul, hardly three years since Durkin arrived from Michigan.
The story surrounding Jordan McNair is twofold. There are the concerns over how team staff mishandled an exhausted player; and then there are reports of the culture within Maryland football. From the culture problem perspective, the saga is more accurately rooted in the hiring of Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court in the winter of 2015-16.
Reporting on the matter, The Wall Street Journal called strength coaches “gym overlords.” The NCAA limits practice hours during the off season, but time spent in workouts led by strength coaches doesn’t add to the tally. At Maryland, Court was known “to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights,” even a trash can. This behavior was deemed “unacceptable by any reasonable standard," but still, a report by the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, released October 25th, found that there was not a “toxic culture” within the football program. It did detail “many occasions” in which Court “engaged in abusive conduct.”
Regardless, Terrapin football faced festering problems because players feared speaking out. A current player said: "I certainly have witnessed a mentality where everything is hyper-aggressive and there was no room for players to show weakness. The situation [with McNair] that occurred this summer was a clear culmination of that with someone who didn't look out for himself when he didn't feel well because he felt the pressure around him to not look like a 'failure.'"
There is little doubt that both Durkin and Court helped create this kind of atmosphere. It was later reported by ESPN.com that McNair did not finish the May 29th workout on his own and walked around the practice field before being taken for treatment. First responders even called in a "male patient with a seizure.” These instances of mismanagement spelled Durkin’s ultimate demise. After the firing, Johnny Jordan, Jordan McNair's former roommate, said: "I'm not really playing for a head coach… I'm playing for the guy upstairs, who we dedicated this season to, I've dedicated my career and life to."
Today, NCAA Division I football is a billion-dollar industry. Coaches across the board routinely go to extreme lengths because, in a near-professional playing environment, that is what on-field success requires. Between 2000 and 2016, 33 NCAA football players have died while training. Only 18% of those deaths were trauma related– McNair is part of the majority. Changing statistics like these will take time, and so too will confronting the limits of the human body and notions of the absolute necessity of success and winning, both of which athletes commonly push. Marty McNair, Jordan’s father, called Durkin’s firing a “step in the right direction.” I cross my fingers that it is the first step of many.