Maryland football player’s death raises broad questions for university

University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh has long been wary of the power of college athletics to shape how the state’s flagship university is perceived.

“As president, I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes,” he said last year at a meeting of the University Senate, the campus newspaper reported at the time. “One of them is an athletic scandal. It blows up, it blows up the university, its reputation, it blows up the president.”

Now the death of a football player on his watch has plunged the university into a period of uncertainty, and demonstrated — as if Loh needed proof — that college sports' lucrative monetary rewards always carry risks.

Two months after 19-year-old Jordan McNair succumbed to heatstroke, officials face questions not only about the admitted failure to diagnose his condition, but over larger issues such as the coaches’ training, the program’s culture, how it monitors its teams and the role of sport in the university.

McNair’s death came four years after Maryland joined the powerful Big Ten Conference, part of a push to upgrade the football program after years of mediocre records and attendance.

The university’s Board of Regents on Friday voted to take over a pair of university-ordered reviews, of the protocols around player safety and of alleged “bullying, alleged intimidation, alleged denigration” of players by coaches.

“Once something horrific happens, the door is open to uncovering other conduct,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. “Who knows what the investigation turns up? That’s the risk when something like this tragically happens.”

Solomon and others say the death of McNair, an offensive lineman from Randallstown, raises questions about whether athletic department administrators understood the culture and conditions that football players faced on the practice fields, and whether coaches were properly trained.

The watchdog Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has expressed concern that college coaches aren’t certified in the same way as professionals in many other fields.

The commission has urged the NCAA to “develop minimal professional standards that coaches are required to meet,” said Amy Perko, the commission’s chief executive officer. “Those kinds of standards could require the completion of different levels of coaching licenses or professional certification.”

The NCAA requires coaches to take a test certifying that they understand rules for recruiting athletes. Perko said the commission is seeking validation that “they are prepared for their roles as educators and leaders in the development of student-athletes.”

The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment.

McNair, a former standout at the McDonogh School, struggled during a preseason practice May 29 to finish a conditioning test that consisted of 10 110-yard sprints. He was taken to a trainer’s room, and then to a hospital; he died of heatstroke 15 days later.

Head coach DJ Durkin and three team staff members were placed on administrative leave pending the reviews; one of the staff members, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, later resigned.

Maryland is Durkin’s first head coaching job. He served as an assistant at Michigan and Florida.

Upon his arrival in 2015, Durkin told players they would win with “mind-numbing repetition.”

The university last year opened the renovated Cole Field House, a $196 million multipurpose center that prominently includes an indoor football practice field.

“The elephant in the room is can Maryland really keep up with the biggest challenges of Big Ten football?” said Solomon, a Maryland graduate. “DJ Durkin was brought in to recruit well, win games and raise money. It’s fair to ask at what cost, especially since football has not been a very popular sport.”

Maryland did not make athletic officials available for comment.

Loh said Tuesday that he and athletic director Damon Evans met with McNair’s parents to apologize and take “legal and moral responsibility” for “mistakes” that led to the football player’s death.

Loh said the training staff “basically misdiagnosed the situation” with McNair.

Doctors say McNair’s health might have hinged on Maryland’s failure to adhere to guidelines for treating heatstroke, including cold-water immersion — a protocol that doctors say likely saved former Towson football player Gavin Class’ life after he was stricken during a practice in 2013. The training staff did not take McNair’s temperature or use cold-water immersion, university officials have acknowledged.

Tom McMillen, the former congressman and Terps basketball star, said Loh did the correct thing by launching independent probes.

“It’s tragic – 19-year-old kids dying. It happens three or four times a year,” said McMillen, president of LEAD1, an athletic directors association. “You’ve got to lift up the hood and get all the facts.”

Maryland has been here before.

In 1986, All-American Len Bias – one of the best basketball players in school history – died of a cocaine overdose, two days after the Boston Celtics selected him with the second pick of the NBA draft.

Subsequent reports showed that the university had been lax in policing the team, and had allowed players’ academic performance to plummet.

The university responded with a battery of reforms. By the end of the year, athletic director Dick Dull, basketball coach Lefty Driesell and football coach Bobby Ross had all left a university in transition.

Allen Schwait was then chairman of the Board of Regents.

“I feel proud of our process,” he said this week. “I insisted that it be public. It was very thorough.”

Maryland graduate Eric Bickel, a co-host of the “Sports Junkies” radio show on Washington’s WJFK 106.7, said the death of Bias “affected the perception of the school.”

“It had this lingering, haunting feeling for 15 or 20 years,” Bickel said.

He believes the school didn’t fully emerge from the shadow of Bias’ death until the early 2000s, when coach Gary Williams led the basketball program to a national championship.

Now, he fears another dark period ahead.

“Maryland can never seem to get out from these scandals,” he said.

McNair’s death has again raised questions about oversight. ESPN reported this month that football players were bullied and humiliated at practices.

“It’s very important to know what is going on on the ground floor,” Solomon said. “They really do need to have a sense of what’s going on.”

Former Maryland quarterback Jordan Steffy, who suffered two serious concussions at the school, agreed.

“Super important,” he said.

Steffy, whose career ended in 2008, said he felt cared for at Maryland because he got along with then-head coach Ralph Friedgen and other staff members. Dwight Galt, the strength and conditioning coach, had twin sons on the team, and that lent a family atmosphere, Steffy said.

Steffy now runs a program that helps kids become the first in their families to attend college.

“I think we’re talking about really different situations,” Steffy said. “What a rough and unfortunate situation [now],” he said.

The NCAA requires Maryland and other Division I schools to conduct exit interviews in every sport with student-athletes, selected by the institution, whose eligibility has expired. Maryland assigns an athletic department staff member to oversee each team. Some oversee more than one team at a time.

Before Evans became athletic director in late June, he had acted as Durkin’s supervisor and was responsible for monitoring all activities involving the team.

It’s unclear who was assigned to oversee football after Evans’ promotion — he was initially named interim athletic director in October 2017 -- or if any players expressed concerns about the football culture in the interviews.

Maryland athletics spokesman Zack Bolno said he was looking into the exit interviews and had no immediate response.

Jeff Hunt is a crisis management executive who teaches at the University of Texas. He was hired by Penn State after longtime football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of molesting boys in his charge.

Hunt said athletic programs can become islands on campus.

“They’re powerful – you have huge egos involved,” he said. “You wake up one day and they’re isolated, and there’s a lack of institutional control over them.”

Hunt said he doesn’t believe college administrators intentionally turn a blind eye to possible problems in the athletic department, but simply that they have a “million other things” on their plate.

“I don’t think it’s a macro thing, like college athletics are fundamentally flawed,’” he said.

Taylor Branch, the Baltimore-based civil rights historian who has written critically about college sports, disagrees.

“I don’t even think Maryland is an outlier,” he said.

Branch points to the case of Derek Sheely, the Frostburg State University football player who died in 2011 after a practice in which athletes slammed repeatedly into one another.

Sheely’s family alleged in a lawsuit that the player was bleeding and woozy from multiple hits, and an assistant coached barked at him to “quit acting like a p----, and get back out there.”

The family filed a wrongful death suit against the NCAA, Frostburg State staff and others, and accepted a $1.2 million settlement. Of that, $50,000 came from the State of Maryland.

McNair and Sheely are two of four college football players who have died in Maryland in the last decade.

Will McKamey, a freshman running back at the Naval Academy, collapsed during a spring practice in March 2014 and died three days later. Marquese Meadow, a defensive lineman at Morgan State University, succumbed to heatstroke during a preseason practice that August.

Branch said college athletes are vulnerable to exploitation — they play at the will of coaches, and can lose their scholarships at any point.

They are “the engines and the essential talent” that allows the NCAA and universities to make billions of dollars every year, Branch said. Yet there are strict rules to ensure that they are not paid for their labor.

They’ve been “reduced to chattel on the field,” Branch said.

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