Death of Jordan McNair: Why did so few Maryland football players talk to investigator?

Dozens of players were on the field the day University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair fell ill during practice, suffering heatstroke that would lead to his death. But just six players agreed to speak to the consultant the university hired to investigate what happened that day — and how the team staff handled the 19-year-old’s distress.

Some parents and others wonder whether more players might have come forward had a more confidential process been used to solicit the players’ input.

Instead, the consultant, Dr. Rod Walters, said he allowed assistant athletic director Jason Baisden to handle the sign-up. Players were told to sign their names to a sheet that was hung in the Gossett Football Team House. And they were later escorted by Baisden to meet with the investigator.

Walters acknowledged that the process initially did not allow players to come forward anonymously to describe what they saw during McNair’s final practice. While he didn’t ask their names or identify them in the final report, he said, there was no private tip line or email set up for students to reach out to him.

“Jason Baisden arranged it,” Walters said. “He knows the kids. They set that up to offer it to the student athletes. …

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. Arranging more confidential outreach is “something we could’ve done.”

Still, he said, he was comfortable with the people he spoke to and his findings. The Walters group conducted more than 50 interviews during the review process. The university said it received feedback on the initial sign-up, and arranged for players to have a second opportunity to talk with Walters away from the athletics facility.

The university did not make anyone from the athletic department available to speak with reporters.

University officials announced June 19 that they hired Walters to evaluate “procedures and protocols” related to McNair’s death. McNair was attempting 10 repetitions of a 110-yard run during a May 29 practice when he started showing signs of exhaustion. The trainers eventually moved him to the football field house for treatment, about 30 minutes after the onset of his symptoms. Another half-hour would pass before anyone called 911, records show. He died two weeks later.

Walters’ report, issued last month, determined officials did not adhere to industry best practices in treating McNair. They failed to take his temperature or use cold-water immersion, which experts say could have saved his life. University president Wallace Loh has said the school takes “legal and moral responsibility for mistakes the training staff made” on the day McNair was hospitalized.

The Walters investigation is the only independent review of the day’s events.

A spokesman for the Prince George’s County state’s attorney has said the office is monitoring the situation but has not made a decision on a criminal investigation.

The university set up a commission to look into the culture of the football team, which some media reports have described as toxic, but it is not charged with looking into McNair’s death. The University System of Maryland’s governing board later took control over that investigation, along with Walters’ review.

Some parents, who asked not to be named because they fear retaliation against their sons, question the independence of Walters’ process. “Any coaching staff could walk by and see the list,” said one parent. “The boys that came out have nothing to gain and everything to lose.”

Just four students signed up. Parents note those interviews were scheduled for Aug. 1 — two days before players needed to be back on campus for the start of preseason training camp.

Walters noted the university eventually arranged a second chance for interviews Aug. 13, this time at Stamp Student Union, the bustling center of campus.

Two students showed up that day, but their interviews are not included in the report because their comments were deemed irrelevant to the investigation. Walters said they came to express support for their coaches.

“All football players were encouraged to participate in the external safety review throughout the process,” university spokeswoman Katie Lawson said in an emailed statement Friday.

A psychologist who works with professional and college football teams said it’s not surprising that so few students spoke out — there is an unwritten rule that athletes shouldn’t talk to outsiders about issues that could “hurt your own.”

Dionne Koller, director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore, said these types of investigations are best conducted by law firms and attorneys who specialize in gathering information and conducting interviews.

Such investigations must maintain the appearance of fairness, thoroughness and impartiality, Koller said.

Posting a sign-up sheet to solicit interview subjects would “impact the fairness of the investigation” as it would likely intimidate players. She said it is “troubling” if parents and others now view the review as being unfair.

The student interviews didn’t constitute a major portion of Walters’ 74-page report. The four athletes’ statements, describing what they witnessed on the field, are condensed to two pages, as an appendix. More than 100 players are listed on the team roster.

The athletes told of an athletic trainer yelling across the field, “get him the f--- up!” and “drag his a— across the field” after McNair struggled to finish a conditioning drill, which he couldn’t complete on his own, the report said. One player said McNair was walked back to drills after displaying signs of illness, now known to be the precursors to his fatal heatstroke.

Psychologist Rick Perea, who works with a number of NFL and Division I teams, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun he wasn’t surprised to learn about the low turnout of students seeking to speak to Walters.

“The coaches are the guys who recruited you and brought you in. You don't want to hurt them,” he said. “Anytime investigators come onto campus looking to talk to players, you never want to be the one to tell them something was wrong. It’s a natural instinct to protect your family.”

Sports psychologist Mitch Abrams echoed the idea that sports teams often handle incidents as a “family matter.”

“You're not supposed to rat on your friends and betray the team,” he said. “The importance of being identified as member of a team is a very strong pull for athletes. To go against the grain is dangerous. Athletes attach their identity to their jersey.”

There appear to be no national standards for how universities conduct investigations into student deaths.

“I’ve been in this business for 26 years and there really aren’t any” standards, said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. “Every state and statute and division is different.”

Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma, has been researching college football deaths for years. His research found that from 2000 to 2016, far more NCAA football players have died in practice than in games.

His research publication also criticized the investigations conducted into such deaths: “Institutional investigation into the dangers of collegiate off-season training seems designed to seek, not find.”

Anderson said that in his view, the Walters’ evaluation “fell short” for not looking at what caused McNair to need medical care.

“My primary point is we need to take a look at the construct of these workouts so that we have fewer athletes who need ice water immersion, fewer athletes who need CPR,” he said. “If we can address that, we reduce these incidents and reduce some of these deaths.”

Walters said he didn’t have scripted questions for the players who did come to him, but rather asked them what concerns they wanted to share. Each session lasted about 15 minutes.

“I wanted to give the student-athletes a chance to express themselves,” he said. “That was a concern, to make sure they were heard through this, and that’s what we did.”

He said he wasn’t surprised by how few players came to speak with him.

“I know how busy these student-athletes are,” he said.

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