On May 29, University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair was exhausted. He and the team were running 110-yard sprints in the hot sun during offseason conditioning drills. Maryland is not a football school. It never has been. Despite a few good seasons in the past which included some national rankings and low-level bowl games, the Terrapins have, for the most part always been a basketball school.
Head coach Daniel John Durkin, known as DJ, looked to change all of this when he was hired to take over the team in 2015. One of Durkin’s first hires was strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, a walking mass of toxic masculinity who was known to call out players for putting their hands on their knees during workouts and using homophobic slurs if players wanted water.
McNair was struggling on this day. The 19-year-old eventually collapsed during the workout and suffered a seizure. He was struggling to breathe. None of the coaches on the field took his temperature to see if he was suffering from heat exhaustion. No one complied with any of the proper protocol for possible heatstroke which includes cold water immersion.
Two weeks later, in an area hospital, McNair died
Heatstroke is not uncommon and McNair’s death was preventable. But the culture of the University of Maryland’s football team is what caused it. As ESPN reports, the football bravado bullshit that permeates most football programs was particularly cruel.
There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Court was angry.
The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.
Here is where things stand now: A 19-year-old football player with an infectious smile is gone. The only person even remotely reprimanded for this tragedy has been strength and conditioning coach Rick Court who was allowed to resign and given a $315,000 settlement on his way out the door. A sham of an investigation found that the University of Maryland’s football team violated some policies but isn’t toxic. And the coach and his entire staff have all been allowed back on the team after being suspended for eight games. As it stands, coach DJ Durkin was officially given a stern talking to.
“We believe that Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department,” Maryland Board of Regents chairman Jim Brady said, Yahoo Sports reports. “And while he shares some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it at his feet.”
A child is dead from heatstroke and the coach of the team—the overall guardian of his players’ well-being—won’t be punished for his death. In fact, Durkin didn’t receive any punishment. Nothing. Not. One. Thing.
He was back in front of the team on Tuesday and many players walked out of the first meeting they’ve had since the coach had been reinstated. The saddest part of this entire tragedy is that the university appeared to be doing the right thing when they conducted an investigation into the events that lead to McNair’s death. When the report was completed, it determined that Maryland football “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out;” that the Maryland athletic department “lacked a culture of accountability;” and was plagued by dysfunction.
It also found that “Court, who was Durkin’s first hire and right-hand man, was ‘effectively accountable to no one’ and ‘engaged in abusive conduct during his tenure at Maryland.’ He threw a garbage can full of vomit. He threw weights. He fat-shamed players. There was a disputed allegation by two players that he used a pull-down bar to choke a player in the weight room,” Yahoo reports.
In the end, nothing mattered. Coach Durkin and his staff get to replay the down. There wasn’t even a flag on the play.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach and somebody spit in my face,” McNair’s father, Marty, said about the university’s decision to keep Durkin.
“Coach Durkin had an obligation to keep his players safe and he failed,” the McNair’s lawyer Hassan Murphy said. “Yet, he remains.”
The fallout will be swift. Maryland students have already planned protests and it still remains unclear whether players will suit up and play for Durkin against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 3.
“It could not have worked out better for chairman Brady,” Jonathan Allen, Maryland’s student body president, told ESPN. “He didn’t need to buy out Coach Durkin’s multimillion [-dollar] contract. He did not need to buy out [Athletic Director] Damon Evans’ contract, did not need to fire a president and potentially have litigation if President Loh deemed there wasn’t sufficient cause.
“The only person who paid, as the McNair family’s representative said, was Jordan, and that was with his life. That’s why we’re outraged.”
Maybe the only thing the University of Maryland Athletic Department ever got right was when it created the slogan for the program:
Fear the Turtle.