On August 14, 2018, about two months after the death of football player Jordan McNair, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh announced the formation of and eight-person commission to investigate whether the culture of the football program was “toxic,” as an ESPN report just days prior suggested.
The commission’s findings were finally released to the public on Thursday afternoon in the form of a 198-page report. The content of the report is clear: There was a chaotic and abusive environment throughout Maryland’s football program, that directly contributed to McNair’s death.
The explicit conclusion of the report?
“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,” the commission says.
“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.”
It’s strikingly similar to the report released by Ohio State earlier this year examining whether or not head coach Urban Meyer enabled assistant coach Zach Smith’s domestic abuse; that report detailed Meyer’s many lies and the ways he failed to assist Smith’s wife, and yet concluded that he was not a liar and applauded his respect for women.
It’s a special level of cognitive dissonance that seems reserved only for the most powerful men and institutions — a way to fake accountability and transparency without actually taking any meaningful steps to fix a problem.
McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, suffered exertional heatstroke during a team workout on May 29. He died 15 days later in the hospital. In August, Loh gave a press conference in which he announced that the school accepted “legal and moral” responsibility for McNair’s death because the redshirt freshman “did not receive proper medical care.” Rick Court, assistant athletic director and strength coach, reached a financial agreement with the school and resigned, while head coach D.J. Durkin was placed on paid administrative leave, where he remains.
Last month, Maryland released a separate report detailing the many ways it failed to properly treat McNair when he began showing signs of suffering. His death was preventable, if only Maryland had acted properly.
This week’s report was supposed to focus in on the culture of the program and the accountability of individuals. It describes the lack of institutional support the Maryland establishment provided the football program, the disturbing and emotionally toxic motivational tactics employed by Court and Durkin, and the many ways players were silenced, overworked, and undervalued in the football program.
But ultimately, the report decides that everyone made mistakes, yet no one is responsible.
The report says that Durkin was “hired under high-pressure circumstances and tasked with turning a struggling football program into a Big Ten contender, with less funding and fan support from other conference programs,” and adds that during his tenure, “the athletics department lacked a culture of accountability, did not provide adequate oversight of the football program, and failed to provide Mr. Durkin with the tools, resources, and guidance necessary to support and educate a first-time head coach in a major football conference.”
None of that should shield Durkin from taking responsibility for McNair’s death. But the level of chaos in the athletics department as a whole is notable — and much more glaring given that McNair’s death was the result of botched protocols and a failure to execute Maryland’s emergency action plan.
Furthermore, nobody directly supervised Court, and he did not have a single performance review during his tenure at Maryland.
The chaos at the top of the athletics department also meant there was no formal way to track complaints. Because of that, warnings about problems in the football program, including an anonymous email sent on December 9, 2016 and published by the Washington Post last month, fell through the cracks.
Court was unequivocally abusive
The report goes out of its way trying to describe some of Court’s behavior as “motivational tactics.”
It also says Court “challeng[ed] a player’s manhood and hurl[ed] homophobic slurs” and “would attempt to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit.”
This shouldn’t be a case of different interpretations; the descriptions of Court’s actions are unequivocally abusive, even if the report cites varying recollections of many of the accounts. In one case, Court allegedly choked a player during a work-out.
Court was the strength and conditioning coach, so it makes sense that he was focussed on players’ weight and diet. However, the report says “there are reports of players being, as some characterized it, disrespected, demeaned, or humiliated in incidents involving food.”
In one case, Court knocked a player’s tray of food out of his hands in front of the entire team. The report seems to suggest that this was okay, because players and other coaches found it funny.
“Durkin states that players were laughing about the incident on the team bus following the game that day. Several witnesses also cite a pre-bowl game skit later that year,” the report says. “In the skit, a member of the coaching staff playing the role of Mr. Court knocked food out of a player’s hands. The skit was prepared by the position group of the player in question. The parody was well received by the players and prompted laughter. The player involved did not find the incident amusing.”
However, the report then goes on to quote the player who was at the center of this incident; he did not find any of it amusing. In fact, he found it emotionally scarring.
In another incident, Court forced a player with weight problems to eat candy in front of his teammates while the rest of them worked out.
Even more disturbing is the report’s finding that Maryland coaching staff would subject players to extremely graphic and horrific videos while they were eating.
“According to [one player], this included videos of serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, and bloody scenes with animals eating animals. Another player says that there were videos of rams and bucks running at each other at full speed,” the report says.
“Mr. Durkin maintains that horror movies were sometimes shown at breakfast to motivate and entertain players.”
Playing through injuries
The report cites statistics claiming injuries in the Maryland football program declined dramatically from 2016 to 2018. However, there is no recognition that the statistics only include the reported and diagnosed injuries, and those decreased numbers could be because players were too scared to speak up about their injuries.
In fact, the report specifically cites examples of players feeling that head athletic trainer Wes Robinson, Durkin, and Court encouraged them to play through injuries. In other cases, parents of players complained that their sons were completely misdiagnosed by Maryland’s training staff.
One player’s anonymous comment is particularly damning: “[U]nder Durkin, you weren’t allowed to be injured… You weren’t injured unless you couldn’t walk.”
McNair died because the training staff did not recognize his symptoms of heat stroke in a timely manner; he was pushed too hard at practice; and then his illness was not treated properly or taken seriously in the immediate aftermath. It’s impossible to examine the report’s findings and view McNair’s death as an isolated incident.
It’s remarkable to read through the committee’s findings and see person after person avoiding taking any responsibility for what is going on at Maryland. A big reason for that? In many cases, even when various school personnel accept that some of the report’s disturbing findings are true, they don’t see anything wrong with it.
For example, Durkin had heard about a lot of Court’s abusive behavior and language. He did not, however, feel Court had “crossed any lines.”
The overarching reason accountability seems so lacking, however, is the fact that this is big-time college football. Toxicity is often seen as a feature, not a bug, of such programs.
“There is nothing that is taking place that is uniquely Maryland, there would be similar things happening anywhere else. If Maryland’s culture is toxic then all D1 schools’ culture would be toxic,” a source close to the university said in the report.
That sentiment was echoed by comments in an anonymous survey and quoted in the report.
Ultimately, this report offers more damning details regarding the disturbing tactics employed at Maryland — and, likely, many other top football programs across the country. But, unfortunately, it offers with no answers about how to make the future better. Because even the people who are facing the facts aren’t willing to follow them where they lead: Maryland football’s culture is toxic; college football’s culture is toxic; and something drastic is going to have to change in order for any improvements to be made.