THE DARK SIDE OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
This article was originally published on November 7th, 2018.
One day after the University of Maryland decided to reinstate head football coach D.J. Durkin (@CoachDurkin), the Terrapins backtracked choosing to fire the former University of Michigan coach.
University of Maryland president, Wallace Loh (@presidentloh) stated, "A departure is in the best interest of the university."
So, what events has led to Maryland's football department's troubles?
University of Under Armour
The Terrapins have been one of the most progressive collegiate athletic departments recently.
Starting with the university ending their 59-year affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). As they choose to move away from traditional rivalry games with Duke and North Carolina.
In 2012, Maryland accepted the invitation to join the Big Ten conference. A conference that is made up of schools with similar cultures and academic goals.
"Membership in the Big Ten is in the strategic interest of the University of Maryland," stated President Loh. "We will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come."
Another key factor for the move was to improve the standard of Maryland's football team. As the school identified the opportunity to increase revenue. Moving from the ACC to the Big Ten brought in $24 million in TV revenue alone. Rising to $35 million annually, in 2017.
The year before the move, Maryland's athletic department was forced to cut several sports. In a bid to tackle the athletic department's budget deficits, eliminating 7 of its 27 sports teams. This included men's tennis, women's water polo, men's and women's swimming, acrobatics and tumbling, men's cross country and men's indoor track and field.
Not long after changing conferences, Maryland proved that it was a great decision financially. Despite having the second-lowest in total revenue, in the Big Ten, they brought in $94.9 million, in 2017.
Comparatively, Maryland only brought in an average of $58.7 million, during their time with the ACC.
Maryland has also benefited from the success of alumni, Kevin Plank, the founder, and CEO of Under Armour. The second-largest athletic apparel company, with $4.9 billion in annual revenue.
Plank, has donated millions of dollars to the university. In a bid to position Maryland as the University of Under Armour. In the same vein as Nike founder, Phil Knight, made Oregon the University of Nike. With the help of Knight, the Ducks were propelled from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of collegiate sports.
As Maryland tried to emulate the University of Oregon Under Armour started with creating the Maryland Pride uniforms. Similar to Nike outfitting the Ducks in loud, vibrant neon colors.
The partnership has also lead to the transformation of Cole Field House. The brand new indoor football facility opened in August 2017, costing approximately $45 million. The facility includes a full-sized indoor football field, two outdoor fields, a dining facility, and a hydrotherapy center. Also with the ability to offer an imaging suite, with high-end devices like an MRI machine.
The current progress is expected to only be phase one of the project. With a $155 million project slated to start in September 2019. This will include a treatment center, a center for researchers from UM Baltimore and UM College Park to lead advanced studies together, and an academy for students to launch ideas, products, and companies.
The changes and developments put Maryland in the perfect position to push forward.
President Loh indicated in 2015 that the school is "positioned much better than it was five years ago to attract a top-notch football coach." Further stating "I would think that this is one of the most attractive jobs in the country for somebody who is ambitious and willing to take risks."
"So, the question becomes 'what kind of coach do we want?" described President Loh. "I think ... a coach that plays an exciting brand of football, wide open, that has the personality to relate to the kids. And they are kids — 17, 18 when they arrive. The personality to project themselves well vis-a-vis the boosters, vis-a-vis the media."
Maryland would decide that the best option available was D.J. Durkin. Coming from the University of Michigan, where he was the defensive coordinator.
In Durkin's first year he took the Terrapins to the Quick Lane Bowl. Losing to Boston College 36-30. Durkin's first 2 seasons ended with a 10-15 record.
Despite claims of allegations of unacceptable behavior by the football staff. Durkin and his coaching staff took charge of the spring training preparations, for the upcoming 2018 season.
On May 29th, one player collapsed, during a set of 110-yard sprints. Offensive lineman Jordan McNair was hospitalized, after showing signs of extreme exhaustion and difficulty standing upright, while participating in the workout. After being taken to Washington Adventist Hospital, McNair was found to have a body temperature of 106 degrees.
Two weeks later on, June 13th, McNair died at the hospital. The cause of death was determined to be heatstroke, due to the workout.
So, who was Jordan McNair?
The 19-year-old was set to be a redshirt freshman on Maryland’s football team this fall. A former McDonogh School standout was touted as a four-star recruit. Ranked in the top 25 nationally for offensive linesmen. Within the team, he was known for his easygoing personality, and work ethic on and off the field.
The day after McNair's death, Maryland athletic director Damon Evans, called a press conference. Announcing that an external investigation will be conducted. With the aim to review the circumstances surrounding McNair's death. This would be conducted by athletic training consulting firm, Walters Inc.
Durkin and his coaching staff choosing to restart team practice again on 3 August, with team sources reporting that the bullying culture continued. Primarily led by head strength and conditioning coach, Rick Court (@courtstrength), who was one of Durkin's first hires when arriving at Maryland.
More reports start to appear, with allegations of a toxic coaching culture. Which includes the behavior of intimidation, humiliation, and verbal abuse. Creating a culture of fear for young players. With other sources revealing allegations of using food punitively against the players.
"There was just constant degrading of players," one former player stated, "and that was the culture they brought to the program, and they thought it would toughen us up."
Evans announced, on August 11th, Durkin has been placed on administrative leave pending an external review.
"At this time, the best decision for our football program is to place Maryland Head Football Coach DJ Durkin on leave so we can properly review the culture of the program," the letter continued. "This is effective immediately. Matt Canada will serve as interim head coach."
It was also announced that Rick Court was also placed on leave. He resigned from his position shortly after. Along with head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall.
After the announcement, more player stories began to come to light. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team.
It was also claimed when Court was angry, he would throw small weights, in the direction of players.
Another example was of a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight. Who they forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates workout.
Maryland student body president, Jonathan Allen initially thought about calling for a boycott of football games. However, after speaking with students and administrators, he decided to take a different approach.
"We all should be at the game, supporting our fellow students,” Allen said. “The student-athletes — who are working really hard over the summer, despite everything happening in athletics — will be representing our university on September 1st. If anything, we should all be there, in support of the students on the field.”
Canada was able to start Maryland's season, with a victory over Texas, at FedEx Field. The September 1st game started with players carrying a "79" flag onto the field to honor Jordan McNair. The players also wore a "79" patch on their jerseys during the game.
Walters Inc.'s investigation conducted interviews with more than 150 people. This included 55 student-athletes, who had played football under Durkin. Leading to the creation of a 192-page report detailing the athletics department mismanagement and culture.
The University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents, who took over the investigations, released the findings by Walters Inc., on September 21st.
The findings concluded that"There was a failure to identify escalating symptoms associated with exertional heat illness." Walters Inc. further stating that Maryland's athletic trainers failed in "assessing vital signs, identifying the condition and aggressively treating the patient's elevated core temperature. No apparatus was used for prompt cooling of the patient." Meaning that they failed to properly treat McNair for heatstroke.
The investigation also provided a timeline of the day. Showing that more than 90 minutes passed from the end of the sprint workout, and McNair being transported to the hospital.
Rick Jaklitsch, a prominent Maryland football booster, shortly after began making controversial comments. Telling The Diamondback student newspaper "As much as we hate to say this, Jordan didn't do what Jordan was supposed to do."
These controversial comments caused the Maryland players to protest Jaklitsch. With players asking for him to be removed from the team's travel party.
USM board of regents investigation was concluded and results released, on October 30th. The commission reported that there was "no toxic culture" at Maryland. With the culture of the program not contributing to McNair's death.
However, investigators found a disturbing number of instances of bullying and humiliation by strength coach Rick Court. While the football program was under Durkin's leadership. Concluding that players did not feel comfortable going to Durkin with issues.
On the same day, however, the USM board of regents announced, that it was recommending Durkin be reinstated as head coach. The board informed President Loh to reinstate Durkin. Telling Loh it is the board's top priority, and he would be himself would be removed if he did not comply.
The same afternoon Durkin returned to take a team meeting. With a number of the players walking out in protest.
Marty McNair, Jordan's father, stated "I feel like I've been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face."
University of Maryland student government association announced that there will be a rally on campus. Demanding justice for Jordan McNair and protesting Durkin's return as head coach. Jonathan Allen stated, "People are appalled by this." Allen also mentioned his plans to introduce legislation that calls for President Loh to fire Durkin.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (@GovLarryHogan), also made a statement "deeply concerned at how the [USM regents] could have possibly arrived at the decisions." Hogan called for a public meeting where the board and Loh reconsider their decision. Ending the statement with, "The University System of Maryland has let down the University of Maryland community and the citizens of Maryland, and now is the time to fix it."
Loh, decided to act independently from the board, alerting Evans to fire Durkin. Evans later confirming that Canada would continue as an interim coach. Loh announced he made the decision because of an “overwhelming majority of stakeholders” on the school’s campus “expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.”
As Durkin was not fired for cause, Maryland is "buying out the remainder" of his 5-year contract. The value of that is believed to be $5.4 million of the $8.4 million deal. He was soon followed by Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, in leaving Maryland.
After Loh surprise firing of Durkin, board chairman James Brady resigned from his position. With Linda R. Gooden, being ushered in as new chairwoman, Linda R. Gooden. In a statement, she apologized for the board’s promoting the reinstatement of Durkin. Stating "in its quest to keep an open mind about the facts presented in the two recent reports on the tragic death of Jordan McNair and the University of Maryland, College Park football program, and subsequent interviews with those involved, the board — in the minds of many — lost sight of its responsibility to the university system."
Gooden going as far as offering an apology to the parents and relatives of Jordan McNair. “For that, we apologize to the McNair family, the University of Maryland, College Park community, and to the citizens of our state,” she said.
"Our goal as a board is to govern in a manner that affords every student an opportunity for a safe, affordable, and quality education experience," reaffirmed Gooden. "Under my leadership, this board will accomplish that goal by recommitting to the principle of shared governance."
Level of Incompetence
The Durkin investigation has greatly affected the athletics department's relationships with its stakeholders. However, it was not the only PR nightmare the department had to deal with.
In August, it became known that former athletic director, Kevin Anderson (@kevinbgater), intervened in a sexual misconduct case. Anderson authorized the use of athletic department funds, for legal representation of two football players accused of sexual misconduct. One Maryland student calling it “just another example of the dark side of college sports.”
The University of Maryland long ago appears to have lost its way. Maryland decision to move away from the solid, steady base of the ACC, may not be directly related to the death of a young player. However, they are not totally unrelated either.
Their decisions do highlight such an extraordinary level of incompetence, at the leadership level. The way to go with Durkin was "obvious to anyone except those charged with upholding the integrity" of the school.
The decision "will long be remembered as one of the biggest as one of the biggest administrative dumpster fires in the history of both college athletics and higher education." It has once again, forcing us to question the ethics of college football.
The lifeblood of every college football program is the ability to recruit. So, we will see how the lack of care for Jordan McNair affects Maryland's ability to recruit in the future?