What we learned from University of Maryland football culture report after Jordan McNair's death

The Baltimore Sun has obtained a copy of the roughly 200-page investigative report probing the University of Maryland football program’s culture following allegations that the team was ruled by an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation.

The football program has been under a harsh spotlight since the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice in College Park. This investigation into the state flagship’s football program — which is being overseen by the University System of Maryland’s governing body — was catalyzed by explosive media reports that described a “toxic culture” on the team.

The wide-ranging report summarizes more than two years of “dysfunction” within the athletics department. It examines the atmosphere before and after McNair’s death.

The report was assembled by an eight-person commission that included former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, retired U.S. District Court judges Ben Legg and Alex Williams, and attorney Charlie Scheeler, among others.

Here are some key takeaways.

Team culture isn’t “toxic” but has deep-rooted issues.

The report cites the Merriam-Webster definition of toxic in its summary: “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

The commission determined the Terps football program culture did not meet that standard.

The investigation did, however, uncover “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”

The commissioners stated that they “do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.”

Dysfunction pervaded the athletic department.

The past two years in the athletic department have been marked by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.

Former athletic director Kevin Anderson was placed on a long sabbatical before the current director, Damon Evans, took over. The report describes people jockeying for power within the program — and a “chasm” between the two men.

One former coach compared the athletic department’s dysfunction to Washington politics.

This atmosphere led to blurred lines of communication and convoluted reporting structures, the report states. It was unclear, for example, whether certain coaches reported to head football coach DJ Durkin, and therefore it was difficult to determine who should be responsible for their inappropriate conduct.

The strength and conditioning coach “engaged in abusive conduct.”

Players interviewed by the commission told stories of coach Rick Court humiliating players, calling them names that challenged their manhood and involved slurs.

He would throw food, weights, and once, a trash can full of vomit.

“I have heard players and myself called ‘p------’ for being unable to complete workouts, and the constant foul language has become accustomed to our culture,” a player said.

In one particularly troubling incident, Court is alleged to have choked a player using a pulldown weight machine. He denies that this took place, though it was described by two eyewitnesses and the player’s mother.

The report confronts which tactics are fair game.

Many players interviewed by the commission believe the program’s coaching tactics reflected those of a “big time football program.” In 2014, Maryland entered the high-pressure Big 10 conference.

Durkin modeled his program after Ohio State University’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who the report characterizes as “tough, no nonsense leaders.”

One section of the review lays out that “pushing the human body to its limit” has always been a hallmark of sports.

“Football is a ‘gladiator sport’ where pushing to and through exhaustion is celebrated,” it reads.

But the commission determined that “this effort should be accompanied by positive, not degrading, motivation.”

Players rated the football culture poorly in a survey.

Ninety-four players took an anonymous survey in September at the request of the commission.

Maryland football team’s culture “fared poorly” compared with other college teams and Court’s “scores were extremely poor by any standard,” the commission found. Players noted in their comments that “scars lingered from Coach Court’s abusive language and conduct during his first season.”

Twenty-eight players questioned in the survey mentioned Court throwing objects in the weight room.

There were warning signs before McNair’s death.

The athletic department’s compliance office lacked a system to track complaints, the report found.

That meant warning signs about the football program went overlooked.

A football player approached an athletic department administrator in the spring of 2016. The player said that one of the strength and conditioning coaches spoke in a way that made the player “feel less than human.”

Additionally, an anonymous email was sent by a concerned part on Dec. 9, 2016 to university officials.

The email claimed Durkin and his staff were mistreating athletes and violating NCAA rules.

The report found that the athletic department did not take action to properly investigate the email.

“This is problematic at many levels,” the report states.

We don’t know what will happen next.

The report did not contain personnel recommendations, though it certainly divided up blame among school officials.

The regents were expected to discuss during a private conference call Thursday whether to retain Durkin, Evans and university President Wallace Loh. The head coach has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11.

Amid the uncertainty over top university officials’ futures, power players are already dividing into camps on either side of the debate.

The regents are expected to make the recommendations based on the report public by Tuesday. They are to meet again in closed session on Friday at 2 p.m.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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