Nine months after University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died of heatstroke following a summer practice, the state’s flagship university has implemented most of the changes recommended by a sports medicine consultant brought in to assess how the school handled his death.
Athletic director Damon Evans told an advisory council Wednesday that his department has completed 18 out of 20 recommendations issued by Dr. Rod Walters, whom the university hired to review the football team’s protocols from the day McNair fell ill.
Among the implemented recommendations, the department now ensures that cold water immersion devices are available at all practices, that specific temperature readings are done at each practice location, and that updated emergency plans are posted at all activity sites and drilled into staff.
The recommendations still not completed include: convening a medicine review board to oversee student-athlete health issues and establishing a model for supervising athletic trainers.
McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, died 15 days after suffering heatstroke in June during an outdoor workout in College Park. He was not properly treated by athletic trainers after collapsing. More than an hour passed between the time he started displaying initial heatstroke symptoms and when university officials called 911.
Trainers did not take McNair’s rectal temperature or immerse him in cold water, which are considered the best practices for heatstroke. When treatment is done correctly, experts say, heatstroke death is 100 percent preventable.
As evidence of lessons learned, deputy athletic director Colleen Sorem pointed to a recent incident in which a Maryland football player fell ill during a team workout and was transported to Maryland Shock Trauma. His illness was not heat-related, but as a precaution, he was placed in an ice bath anyway.
“Their first instinct was to put him in an ice tub,” Sorem said of the trainers. “That’s something everyone has learned and has been trained on very well.”
It remains to be seen how the two lingering recommendations will be interpreted by the athletics department.
The way athletic trainers have been supervised was questioned shortly after McNair’s death. The Baltimore Sun reported that the university’s former athletic director, Kevin Anderson, had proposed in May 2017 placing athletic training staff under the supervision of the university’s medical school, but the plan was never implemented.
The president of American Medical Society for Sports Medicine said that a model where trainers are independently supervised outside the athletic department is in line with national best practices and minimizes potential conflicts between medical staff and coaches.
The university stood by its organizational structure at the time, saying it uses “a physician-directed healthcare model.” It did not adopt Anderson’s proposal because “athletic trainers were already supervised by University of Maryland School of Medicine physicians,” allowing the school to retain the ability to make personnel decisions.
Evans said the department still is working with sports medicine experts to determine what the best organizational model is for the university’s circumstances.
“We are looking across the country to see what different models are out there,” he said.
He said he hopes members of the athletic medicine review board will be announced soon, and meet sometime in May.
The advisory council peppered Evans and others with questions about the ways they’re learning from McNair’s death. The six-member group is chaired by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, and includes other higher education and sports leaders. They appeared pleased with the university’s progress.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work done,” Kirwan said. “There was a very sincere, good faith effort to implement the recommendations in full.”
The council also is overseeing the implementation of recommendations from a separate report that probed the football team’s culture. Shortly after McNair’s death, ESPN published a damning article alleging a “toxic culture” under football coach DJ Durkin, who has since been fired.
An independent commission issued a roughly 200-page report, in which it determined there was a culture “where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
Evans said the athletic department is prioritizing transparency by encouraging senior officials to drop in on open practices to observe what goes on day-to-day. The department has created an online platform, called Terps Feedback, that provides student-athletes the opportunity to submit comments or concerns anonymously.
Evans predicted the bulk of the second report’s recommendations would be implemented in the next few months.
Football coach Michael Locksley told the advisory council that he feels like his staff and players are all-in on the reforms.
“I’m a big rule follower,” he said. “These are rules that are put in place to ensure our kids are safe, so I'm all for it.”
Still, some council members said they’re eager for proof that the recommendations have been completed. Kirwan said the next step will be seeking out documents and data that substantiate the university’s claims.