The president of the University of Maryland made a startling admission Tuesday, saying basic medical procedures had not been followed when a football player collapsed in the heat during a conditioning workout in May and died two weeks later.
The president, Wallace D. Loh, said that Maryland accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for the death of the player, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman.
D.J. Durkin, Maryland’s head coach, remained on administrative leave in the wake of a blistering report by ESPN last week that he had created a verbally abusive and humiliating atmosphere at the university’s football program.
But the university said the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Rick Court, was no longer working there. Hours after the university’s statement on Tuesday, Court said on Twitter that he had resigned a day earlier and posted what he said was his resignation letter.
The university acknowledged that McNair’s temperature and other vital signs were not taken and that he was not immersed in a cooling bath — standard procedures — after being overcome while running sprints during the May workout.
“The athletic training staff, not the coaching staff — they basically misdiagnosed the situation,” Loh said at a news conference at the university in College Park, Md.
Earlier in the day, Loh and Damon Evans, Maryland’s athletic director, said they had visited McNair’s parents in Baltimore and apologized to them. Loh repeated to reporters what he said he told McNair’s parents: “The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day of May 29, which of course led subsequently to his death on June 13.”
Loh and Evans said they also took seriously the accusations of intimidation and denigration of players by Durkin and the training staff described in the recent ESPN article and other news reports.
“We will not tolerate any behavior from any employee within Maryland athletics that is detrimental to the mental or physical well-being of our student-athletes,” Evans said.
Durkin, 40, has generally been portrayed as a stock football character, one who was fiercely intense but not possessing a reckless ardor.
When he was an assistant at Stanford, from 2007 to 2009, Durkin once engaged in what has been described as a ferocious game of one-on-one basketball with the equally intense head coach at the time, Jim Harbaugh.
The game is said to have lasted 90 minutes and, in Durkin’s telling on a radio show, “there was no fouls being called and there was a lot of blood on the court.”
Durkin also worked under Harbaugh as a defensive coordinator at Michigan in 2015. In a profile in The New York Times that season, a Stanford coach who had worked with both men used a pet phrase of Harbaugh’s to describe Durkin’s approach to football: “With enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
When Durkin was hired at age 37 to become head coach at Maryland for the 2016 season, he seemed to have an impeccable résumé as a highly-regarded recruiter who had been an assistant not only under Harbaugh, but also under Urban Meyer at Florida. He had learned from the best and would now have a chance to test himself against the best in the Big 10 Conference, annually facing Harbaugh at Michigan and Meyer, now at Ohio State, along with Penn State, trying to rebuild a program that had enjoyed only sporadic success.
Harbaugh spoke extravagantly of Durkin’s driven nature on his weekly radio show in 2016, saying, “I always get a smile when I think of D.J. because I think of the foam coming out of the side of his mouth, snot bubbles percolating when he’s really intense. He’s a great competitor.”
The question is whether that passion strayed beyond the limits of propriety as Maryland lost a majority of its games under Durkin.
The ESPN report described a football culture of belittlement and intimidation, according to current and former players and staff members, who said that coaches and trainers commonly embarrassed and shamed players. Two former Maryland players spoke on the record; other accusing sources in the story were anonymous.
Among the accusations in the ESPN article: An offensive lineman considered overweight was forced to eat candy bars in front of his teammates as they worked out. Another player was forced to eat to the point of vomiting. Players’ masculinity was mocked when they were unable to complete a workout or lift a weight, and one player was belittled after passing out.
ESPN reported that on the afternoon of May 29, McNair collapsed while running 10 110-yard sprints; that nearly an hour passed before a call was made to 911 (the university disputes this); and that McNair’s body temperate was 106 degrees when he arrived at a hospital.
William H. Murphy Jr., a lawyer for the McNair family, has said that the cause of death, not yet confirmed, was heat stroke. He has called for Durkin and others to be fired, calling the behavior of the coach and other staff members “reprehensible.”
Since 2000, 31 N.C.A.A. football players have died during off-season or preseason workouts from heat stroke, cardiac issues, asthma and other factors, according to Scott Anderson, the head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma, who keeps a database of athletic fatalities.
Since Jan. 1, 2013, there have been eight known severe cases of heat stroke involving N.C.A.A. football players, with three deaths, Anderson said in an email message. He said he could find no similar “cluster” of deaths until decades earlier, in 1962-63.
Douglas Casa, the chief executive of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, named for a Minnesota Vikings tackle who died of heat stroke in 2001, said heat stroke is readily treatable with “100 percent survivability.”
“Jordan would have survived if he was treated properly,” Casa said of McNair, the Maryland player.
The onset of heat stroke is almost always preventable, too, Casa said, criticizing what he described as “crazy, ridiculous workouts” that players are subjected to, particularly in the off-season when training sessions are not always vigorously monitored and athletes can be subjected to “needless jeopardy.”
The N.C.A.A. has been slow to adopt recommendations set forth in 2012 by sports medicine experts seeking to prevent sudden death in collegiate conditioning sessions, Casa said. “That’s where the greatest risk is because it’s the Wild Wild West,” he said. “There’s no oversight. You have a coming together of many unfortunate factors that cause these kind of catastrophic injuries.”
As Durkin awaits his fate as Maryland’s football coach, he still has his supporters. Will Muschamp, the South Carolina coach who previously promoted Durkin to defensive coordinator at Florida, told reporters, “I find it hard to believe some of the things that I read” in the ESPN article, and he criticized the use of anonymous sources.
Ben Muth, a former All-Pac-10 lineman at Stanford while Durkin coached there, wrote on Twitter, “I have a lot of respect for him as a person and a coach. I never doubted that he really cared about us as players and people, and wanted the best for us.”
In another tweet, Muth wrote, “I could go to any school in the country and find 3-12 kids to bitch about the culture/abuse. And another 2-20 people that just graduated, and another ex-staffer or 2. The only difference at Maryland is that a kid passed away. Durkin wasn’t even at that workout I imagine.”
Muth’s comment in support of Durkin might signal — correctly, if unintentionally — that football’s culture will persist unabated even after the tragedy at Maryland.
“This would seem to be a moment of necessary introspection for the sport,” David Andrews, a sports sociologist at Maryland, said in an email, “but as with the gun violence issue in this country more generally, my feeling is that Jordan McNair’s senseless death will be a brief point of discussion, largely forgotten by the general public once the football season/industry gets in full swing.”
Source: The New York Times