COLLEGE PARK — University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh and athletic director Damon Evans met with the parents of Jordan McNair to apologize and take “legal and moral responsibility” for the circumstances leading to the football player’s death in June, Loh said at a news conference Tuesday.
“You entrusted Jordan to our care and he is never coming home again,” Loh said he told McNair’s parents.
During a preseason practice May 29, McNair was carted to a trainer’s room after he had trouble finishing a conditioning test that consisted of 10 110-yard sprints. The former McDonogh School standout died of heatstroke 15 days later. He was 19.
Medical experts say McNair’s health might have hinged on Maryland’s adherence to medical 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.
Evans said Tuesday that McNair’s treatment did not include cold-water immersion and that the “care we provided was not consistent with best practices.”
Loh said the training staff “basically misdiagnosed the situation.” He said the university takes “legal and moral responsibility for mistakes the training staff made” on the day McNair was hospitalized.
“As a father, there are no words to say to Jordan’s parents that are good enough,” said Evans, a father of two. “I have looked into the eyes of a grieving mother and father, and there is simply nothing good enough [to say]. We will honor Jordan’s life. We will ensure that a tragedy such as this will never happen on our campus ever again by working every single day to provide the safest environment for our student-athletes on and off the field.”
McNair’s family, after the visit from Loh and Evans Tuesday morning, issued a statement through Hassan Murphy, managing partner of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, the Baltimore law firm the family has retained.
“Marty and Tonya McNair appreciate that President Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans met with them today to again offer their condolences and to accept ‘legal and moral’ responsibility for Jordan’s death,” Murphy wrote. “While Marty and Tonya will never get another day with Jordan, Dr. Loh’s words were meaningful to them and give them some comfort that he will put the university on the path to change the culture of the program so that no Terrapin family will have to endure the heartache and grief that they feel.”
Attorney Billy Murphy, asked in an interview about the family’s legal plans, said: “When you accept legal responsibility, all that remains is to determine the amount of compensation. … We are hoping for a speedy resolution for the family.
Evans said it has been his “highest priority” since being hired permanently as athletic director to look into the events that led to McNair’s death. He’d held the job on an interim basis since October when Kevin Anderson went on a sabbatical before resigning in April.
The school previously announced it hired Walters Inc., a sports medicine consulting firm, to perform an external review of the football team’s protocols and procedures relating to McNair’s death. Loh and Evans said the review is not complete but discussed its preliminary findings.
Evans said McNair’s temperature was not taken, nor was the 6-foot-4, 325-pound redshirt freshman immersed in an ice bath after he came off the field.
“In his preliminary report, [Rod] Walters found that the emergency response plan was not appropriately followed,” Evans said. And, he said, “heat illness was not properly identified or treated.”
Evans said new safeguards have been instituted for all university sports.
“We have specifically trained how we practice in the heat by increasing breaks and adding cooling stations,” Evans said.
The two officials also announced the formation of a four-member commission to look into the Terps football team’s culture.
The university placed Coach DJ Durkin and three other staff members on administrative leave last week pending such a review. One of those staffers, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, is no longer with the university, Evans said Tuesday.
The staffing moves followed two damning articles posted by ESPN on Friday that detailed McNair’s struggles during the conditioning test and described an allegedly “toxic” football culture at Maryland.
Loh called the “alleged bullying, alleged intimidation, alleged denigration” within the football program “inappropriate, simply unacceptable,” and said he was unaware of it until the ESPN article. Evans, who as a senior associate athletic director played a role in Durkin's hiring and was responsible for overseeing the football program, said he, too, had been unaware.
“I want to be clear that I have not witnessed any behavior as what was described by the media, but it is essential that we fully review these allegations,” Evans said. “We will not tolerate any behavior within Maryland athletics that is detrimental to the mental or physical well-being of our student-athletes.”
Asked later if he should be held responsible for the culture allegedly established by Durkin, Evans said, “My plan moving forward is to make sure we evaluate that culture, those allegations of that culture and make sure the environment we provide for our student-athletes is one that is safe and conducive for them to learn and to grow and develop and overall they have a good experience. I believe I’m the one that can lead us through these very difficult times.”
Loh said the commission examining the program under Durkin will conduct an “expedited but very careful review … of the practices and culture.”
The commission will be made up of two retired U.S. District Court judges, Ben Legg and Alex Williams; former federal prosecutor Charlie Scheeler, and an unnamed former college football coach who also has served as an athletic administrator.
“We are guided by certain key values — accountability of all employees, of transparency and yes, of fair process,” Loh said.
“In regard to these allegations, they are very serious. They are totally inconsistent with what we stand for and our values, which is about education, preparing student-athletes for life and to be treated with respect and dignity.”