A proposal by former University of Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson in May 2017 that would have placed the school’s athletic training staff under the supervision of the university’s medical school was never implemented, according to internal university documents.
According to a memo obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Anderson wrote College Park president Wallace D. Loh saying the proposal was “in better alignment with the NCAA’s best practice recommendation for establishing an independent medical care model to manage student-athlete injuries and illnesses.”
Loh’s office responded by asking a series of questions about the plan, which were answered in subsequent emails, records show. But the idea languished and never took effect.
The judgment of the training staff has been called into question in the death of 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair. He died in June, 15 days after suffering heatstroke during a preseason conditioning test. Loh said Tuesday that the school takes “legal and moral responsibility” for “mistakes” in treating McNair. The university’s athletic training staff did not take McNair’s temperature and did not use a cold-water immersion treatment, steps medical experts have said might have saved his life.
Loh did not respond Friday to a request for comment. Anderson declined comment.
Dr. Andy Pollak, chair of the orthopaedics department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, issued a statement: "You cannot draw a line between organizational structure and the death of student-athlete Jordan McNair. We share in the commitment to make sure a tragedy like this one never happens again, and we extend our condolences to Jordan's family. We can and will work with the university to implement changes that improve the environment and conditions where student-athletes compete and how athletic trainers provide care."
The University of Maryland also issued a statement, 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, the statement said.
Anderson’s proposal was designed to remove trainers from the influence of coaches and was part of a measure by the NCAA in 2016 that encouraged schools to find a way to provide “independent medical care.”
“This relationship also better aligns resources and expertise under one umbrella aimed at improving patient care, staff education and clinical research in the care of athletic conditions and injuries. This program will serve as a launch pad for the expanded clinical healthcare that will be delivered to the community in the Cole Field House Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance,” Anderson’s memo to Loh said.
The Cole Field House project grew from being an indoor football practice facility, a massive weight room, and offices and meeting rooms for the football team to include a facility for the research of traumatic sports injuries. That contributed to increasing the cost of the project from $155 million to $196 million.
The first stage of Anderson’s proposal was to put Maryland’s training staff under the direction of the medical school’s Department of Orthopaedics, a growing trend. Similar programs have been established at the University of Pittsburgh, Ohio State University and the University of Iowa.
The proposal to move the trainers under the direction of the medical school was also seen as a way to separate Maryland coaches from having any authority over how athletes’ injuries would be treated.
Dr. Chad Asplund, president of American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, said 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 job of the medical staff at a university is to put the safety and health of athletes first,” he said. “Moving to a model where the medical people don't report to athletic people allows the medical staff to make decisions in the right way for the right reasons without fear of losing their jobs or other forms of retribution.”
If a team’s best player, Asplund explained, breaks his leg two days before an important game, “it’s clear that player shouldn’t play.”
“But if it’s a big game and he's the best player, there may be a lot of pressure to make that person play,” Asplund said. “The independent model allows medical staff to make the best choice for athlete safety.”
A revamped workflow can only take a team so far, he said.
“The model and organizational structure is important, but really the most important thing is the culture within the department,” Asplund said. “You can have the best-looking org chart and the best structure, but if your coach is domineering and people are afraid of crossing him, there still may be problems.”
ESPN recently published reports detailing a “toxic” football culture at Maryland, ruled by fear and bullying.
New athletic director Damon Evans placed football coach DJ Durkin and three of his staff members on administrative leave last week. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court has since resigned.
At a news conference Tuesday, Loh and Evans spoke of the failure of the football training staff to take the player’s temperature and put the 6-foot-4, 325-pound offensive lineman into an ice bath.
After 911 was eventually called, McNair was transported first to Washington Adventist Hospital, where his temperature was measured at 106 degrees according to medical records, and then airlifted to the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he died June 13.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.