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Maryland implements final recommendation after McNair’s death, hiring head of new sports medicine department

Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waves a flag in remembrance of teammate Jordan McNair, who died from heatstroke in June 2018, after a game against Rutgers, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in College Park.
Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waves a flag in remembrance of teammate Jordan McNair, who died from heatstroke in June 2018, after a game against Rutgers, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in College Park. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The University of Maryland on Wednesday announced the hiring of a leader for its new sports medicine department, operating outside its athletic department. With the move, the university said it has fulfilled the final recommendation from a panel of medical experts looking to improve the care of the school’s athletes after the June 2018 heatstroke death of football player Jordan McNair.

The university announced the appointment of Dr. Yvette L. Rooks as the lead team physician, director of the University Health Center’s newly created sports medicine department, and assistant director of the University Health Center. Rooks previously worked at the school for nearly two decades.

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The creation of Rooks’ position at Maryland is part of the university’s transition from having its medical staff work under the direction of the athletic department to being part of the University Health Center, which is operated by the division of student affairs. The Walters report and critics had called for the medical staff to be independent of the athletic department before and since McNair’s death.

“The University of Maryland is fortunate to have Dr. Rooks back on our team,” Dr. David McBride, the University Health Center director who will supervise Rooks, said in a statement. “She is a respected family physician and national leader in the field of sports medicine. We are pleased to have her and the sports medicine staff join the University Health Center as we seek to provide care for our student-athletes in a holistic context.”

The panel of medical experts led by Dr. Rod Walters, a former college athletic trainer and head of the sports medicine consulting firm Walters Inc., made 20 recommendations about how the school could implement the NCAA’s best medical practices. The hire of a head team physician to oversee all sports from outside the department was the last measure to be completed.

Walters called Rooks’ hiring “a major step forward” for the university in a statement issued by the school.

Rooks said the new medical model still has to be worked out, but said it will be a “collaborative effort.”

“It’s bringing people together in a more streamlined position instead of having part-time physicians,” she said. "I think having it under one roof on the College Park campus and report to the director of student health and vice president of student affairs is key. I think it’s going to be a model that’s developing.”

Rooks spent nearly 20 years (1998-2017) at Maryland as a team physician, including the final eight as the head team physician, before serving as chief medical officer for athletics at Rutgers since 2017. Rooks said having worked in College Park should help her transition back.

“Some of the folks are still there, and have been very supportive," Rooks said. “I do have that history with the coaches. I do know the culture Maryland likes to portray. I really care about that school because College Park is where I got my start in sports medicine.”

The other recommendations that were previously put in place since McNair’s death include having ice-water tubs or other cold-water-immersion devices available at all practices, having temperature readings done at each practice location, updating and posting emergency plans at all practice and team activity sites, and educating staff members on those emergency procedures.

In May, athletic director Damon Evans announced the hiring of two more athletic trainers — including Brian Simerville as head football trainer — as well as a mental-health professional to work with student-athletes.

Evans said Wednesday it was important to implement the final recommendation by the time teams in fall sports begin playing.

“We wanted to make sure we were thorough. The committee that was in place [to find a lead team physician and director of sports medicine] obviously did a good job,” Evans said. “The most important thing was being thorough and identifying the right candidate. ... We felt we needed to complete this last recommendation, which is going to put our program, our student-athletes in a better position as we continue to improve the health care we provide them.”

On May 29, 2018, the 19-year-old McNair, a McDonogh School graduate, struggled to finish a conditioning test of 10, 110-yard sprints. Athletic trainers failed to provide McNair with cold-water-immersion therapy — typically large tubs filled with ice water — that is used to help lower the body temperature of apparent heatstroke victims. Experts said that could have saved his life. He died June 13, 2018.

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Jonathan Allen, who as president of Maryland’s Student Government Association had been critical of the school’s handling of Durkin in the aftermath of McNair’s death, said Tuesday it was “very encouraging” to hear that all the recommendations had been followed and the school hired a person who had worked previously in College Park.

“It’s important that they’ve distanced the trainers and the physicians from the athletic department,” Allen said. “Just from the surveys we did earlier this summer, only 51 or 52% of universities do that, so it’s great that we’re now among them. It shouldn’t have taken an incident to get to that point. We should always be proactive, not reactive.”

Allen, who graduated in May, said he would have “liked a little more distance” by having the medical staff report to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was recommended by former athletic director Kevin Anderson in 2017 and rejected by university president Wallace D. Loh.

Ireland Lesley, a rising senior from Bethesda who has succeeded Allen as SGA president, said Wednesday that she hopes the university will “continue to reevaluate these types of systems and seeing what works, and what is best for our student-athletes.

"Because of this, I’m really hoping that the department and the university and medical system and the state, to be honest, is going to make sure we’re being proactive about these kind of things that can come up in the future so that we are protecting our student-athletes.”

The selection of Rooks was applauded by those who had worked with her in the past.

“She’s bright, hard-working, [a] role model. She’ll do a great job,” said Dr. Craig Bennett, who left Maryland a few months before McNair’s death after serving as the athletic program’s head orthopaedic surgeon and chief of orthopaedic sports medicine from 2003 through the beginning of 2018.

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Bennett said hiring a person with some history at Maryland is “very critical” in light of what has transpired there.

“She knows many of the people who’ve been involved in the Maryland athletic program. In the range of 20 years, she knows people at the [University of Maryland] medical center, her daughter went to Maryland and she’s been in the community,” Bennett said. “It’s a good hire, because she’s well-known on all fronts.”

Said Evans: “It’s exciting to have Dr. Rooks coming back. From the chair I sit in, I want to make sure we have people on our staff and associated with our program that want to be here. We always talk about stability and continuity at the institution and I believe she brings that.”

Rooks understands the job she is taking in College Park is much different than the one she left.

“I think college athletics is always evolving,” Rooks said, “based on what comes down from the NCAA, what happens around the [Big Ten], what happens in a different conference, so it’s not a static environment.

“In terms of the medical piece, we always have to look at what our student-athletes are coming in with, what are their needs, what kind of services we need to provide. I will have a lot to learn about the current landscape in College Park. ... There is a lot for me to come in and absorb.”

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