The Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office is closely monitoring the football scandal at the University of Maryland following the heatstroke death of a 19-year-old offensive lineman.
“At this point, there is not a criminal investigation, nor has a decision been made as to whether or not that’s a direction we may go at some point,” John Erzen, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, said Wednesday. “But we are watching everything with regard to the investigation going on right now.”
Jordan McNair, a former McDonogh School standout, collapsed during a preseason work out in College Park on May 29. He died of heatstroke about two weeks later.
The University of Maryland commissioned an external review of the incident, which is ongoing. After seeing preliminary findings that showed McNair was not treated immediately for heat illness, university President Wallace D. Loh said at a news conference Tuesday that the institution takes “legal and moral responsibility” for the circumstances leading to McNair’s death.
Maryland football coach DJ Durkin and three members of his staff were placed on administrative leave amid allegations of a “toxic culture” within the football program. On Tuesday, the school announced it assembled a four-man commission to investigate those allegations. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, one of the people placed on leave, also announced his resignation.
That investigation is separate from the review of McNair’s death, the results of which are scheduled to come in mid-September.
It’s exceedingly rare, but not entirely unheard of, for a coach to face criminal charges in the death of a student-athlete.
“Historically, we see courts and prosecutors give a lot of room, a lot of deference, to sports coaches to produce their product,” said Dionne Koller, director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Sport and the Law. “There’s an understanding that the way we treat people in other aspects of society may not always apply when you're training an elite athlete.
“I'm not saying that’s right,” she said, “but that’s the way it is.”
In 2009, a Kentucky high school football coach was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment in the death of 15-year-old lineman Max Gilpin. The young football player collapsed during practice and died of heatstroke three days later.
A jury ultimately found Pleasure Ridge Park High School football coach David Jason Stinson not guilty.
Leland Hulbert, one of the prosecutors in that case, said he “found out the hard way that it’s difficult to convict a football coach of anything because that’s just the culture.”
Hulbert estimated that the state’s investigation involved talking to roughly 150 people — players, coaches, trainers and the dozens of other people who witnessed the practice during which Gilpin collapsed.
“It’s a massive undertaking that they might want to sidestep because the likelihood of victory is slim given the culture,” he said. “But if the behavior is extreme enough, I think they have a good faith duty to investigate and base their decisions on what the evidence shows.”
Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans told reporters Tuesday that McNair’s treatment did not include cold-water immersion, which is considered the standard protocol for treating heatstroke.
The “care we provided was not consistent with best practices,” Evans said.
Exertional heat stroke has a 100 percent survival rate when immediate cooling — through cold water immersion or aggressive cold water dousing — is initiated within 10 minutes of a person’s collapse, according to the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute.
McNair’s parents have hired prominent Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy to represent them. Murphy said he’s “hoping for a speedy resolution for the family.”
It’s more common for families to file lawsuits or reach settlements than for prosecutors to bring criminal charges in these types of cases.
Koller said many questions remain unanswered, which could influence whether the Prince George’s County state’s attorney acts.
She said she’ll be watching to hear whether any information emerges that points to coaches singling out McNair during practice. Koller also will be paying attention to whether any new information shows university officials stood in the way of McNair getting help.
“Was it criminal negligence? We need to hear more facts,” she said. “I’m glad to hear the state’s attorney is monitoring this. We have a public university and we have the death of a student athlete. I would be sorry to see if the state’s attorney’s office just turned a blind eye. I'm not saying they should bring criminal charges, but this is certainly something they should be watching.”