Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports
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What Maryland does following player’s death will be more telling than what it says

Maryland football player Jordan McNair died in June, two weeks after collapsing during an outdoor workout. University president Wallace D. Loh said Tuesday that McNair did not receive appropriate medical care from the team’s training staff on the day he succumbed to heatstroke. 

“The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day,” Loh said. 

That statement is striking for its lack of equivocation. Maryland’s behind-covering might come later — strength coach Rich Court, who resigned after reaching a settlement, looks like a potential scapegoat — but Loh showed real leadership by apologizing to McNair’s parents and promising accountability. 

Not coincidentally, this all happened after ESPN’s reporting on Friday described a “toxic coaching culture” at Maryland under D.J. Durkin. The report said coaches used “extreme verbal abuse” and other tactics meant to humiliate and embarrass players. In response, Maryland placed staffers on leave until an external investigation initiated by the university is complete. 

I hope Maryland (or the police) gets to the bottom of the allegations and, if there is merit to them, holds Durkin responsible. I hope Terrapins fans demand answers. I hope other college football coaches reflect on the tactics used in their programs and make any needed changes. 

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I am skeptical about that last part, for reasons that South Carolina coach Will Muschamp illuminated a day after ESPN’s report. 

Muschamp, Durkin’s old boss at Florida, was asked how he prevents tough coaching from going over the line. Muschamp initially provided a sensible answer (“criticize the performance, not the performer”) before immediately launching into a defense of Durkin in which he blamed “gutless” anonymous sources and players who complain about toxic environments. 

“In any football team, especially right here in August, you can find a disgruntled player that’s probably not playing,” Muschamp said. “I think it’s a lack of journalistic integrity to print things with anonymous sources.” 

Muschamp said nothing about a player dying following a football workout. Instead, he was mad because Durkin is facing questions after a player died on his watch. By Monday, Muschamp was expressing condolences for McNair’s family while saying that, because he knows Durkin personally, it’s “hard to believe some of the things I read in that article.” 

Perhaps Muschamp’s bluster about anonymous sources is just his way of defending his buddy. Still, it seems strange that Muschamp offered his opinions about a situation that has nothing to do with his program. Maybe what he’s actually defending is the idea of college football coaches as kings of their fiefdoms, a problem that can lead to a “toxic coaching culture” in the first place. 

These coaches are accustomed to control and deference to their authority. Administrators and friendly media become enablers. In that kind of culture morality has little chance against money, glory and identity. 

A major scandal can ruin all that. Outsiders scrutinize the program. Lots of fiefdoms would be threatened if “disgruntled” players and “gutless” anonymous sources started speaking out of turn about wrongdoing. 

Muschamp surely knows sources request anonymity for providing information on stories like this because they fear payback. With his rant, Muschamp showed why it’s reasonable for people who work in college football to worry about retaliation if they expose misconduct without anonymity. 

Fear of the head coach’s power can create conspiracies of silence. And the structural problems inherent to big-time college athletics means athletes can be left with no advocates. There is an extreme power imbalance in a system that allows coaches to earn market salaries and assert control over their working conditions while players can do neither. 

You won’t see NFL coaches mistreat players because those players are professionals with union representation. Many NFL players earn higher salaries than head coaches (indicating the relative value of each when both participate in something resembling a free market). An NFL coach who used abusive methods like those alleged at Maryland wouldn’t be an NFL coach for long. 

And abuse is an accurate description of the allegations in that ESPN report. 

“You can motivate people, push them to the limit, without engaging in bullying behavior,” Loh said. 

College football needs whistleblowers, anonymous or otherwise, to speak out when they see things that aren’t right. There are too many disincentives (money most of all) for universities to do it themselves. 

Consider that Maryland athletic director Damon Evans said the school didn’t launch an independent investigation of the circumstances leading to McNair’s heatstroke until after he died. Also: Evans, whose tenure as Georgia’s AD ended in personal scandal and a guilty plea for DUI, was promoted from interim Maryland AD soon after McNair died. 

Maryland president Loh said the right things Tuesday. We’ll see if the school does the right thing if it finds evidence of the toxic coaching culture those anonymous sources said Durkin enabled.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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