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Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports
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Will Muschamp is part of college football’s problem

Maryland football player Jordan McNair died in June, two weeks after he collapsed during an outdoor workout. ESPN reported on Friday that McNair died of heatstroke after showing signs of “extreme exhaustion” during the workout. ESPN also described a “toxic coaching culture” at Maryland under D.J. Durkin that included “extreme verbal abuse” and other tactics meant to humiliate and embarrass players. 

In response to the report, Maryland placed Durkin on administrative leave and opened an investigation into the program. The response from South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, Durkin’s old boss at Florida, was to . . . attack ESPN’s anonymous sources and players who complain about toxic environments. 

Muschamp, the former Georgia safety, was asked Saturday how he prevents tough coaching from leading to “the situation alleged at Maryland.” Muschamp initially provided a sensible answer (“criticize the performance, not the performer”) before immediately launching into a defense of Durkin that called into question whether Muschamp actually believes his sensible answer. 

“He is an outstanding football coach, he’s also an outstanding husband and a father and he treats people with respect. There is no credibility in anonymous sources. If that former staffer had any guts, why didn’t he put his name on that? I think that’s gutless. In any business, in any company, and in any football team, especially right here in August, you can find a disgruntled player that’s probably not playing. I think it’s a lack of journalistic integrity to print things with anonymous sources. But I know D.J. Durkin personally. I know what kind of man he is and what kind of person he is. I talked to him this morning. I don’t think it’s right.” 

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Muschamp expressed not even cursory concern about the player who collapsed during a football workout. He did not elaborate on his statement by, say, explaining why belittling players isn’t an effective way to coach them. Instead, what’s not right in Muschamp’s view is that his guy Durkin is facing questions about how he runs his program because anonymous sources made allegations after a player died on Durkin’s watch

(Muschamp’s carping about anonymous sources inevitably brought out journalists on Twitter to say they’ve used Muschamp as an anonymous source.) 

It should go without saying that the sources request anonymity for stories like this one because they fear reprisal. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing can threaten their livelihoods. After listening to Muschamp’s comments, you can see why it’s reasonable for people who work in college football to worry about retaliation if they expose wrongdoing. 

Muschamp’s rant was self-serving but also stupid, even from a cynical standpoint of self-preservation. He implied that the anonymous whistleblowers and, by extension, ESPN aren’t telling the truth about Durkin’s program. That’s a slippery slope to climb.

If Maryland’s investigation confirms the allegations, what would Muschamp say then? If a star player makes an allegation would Muschamp think he’s more credible than a bench warmer? Muschamp vouching for Durkin’s integrity won’t be a good look if it’s proven that rampant abuse of players happened on Durkin’s watch. 

And abuse is an accurate description of the allegations included in the ESPN report. Tough coaching is fine; mistreating players is not. Muschamp is part of the problem when he grouses about how the allegations came to light instead of unequivocally condemning such tactics.  

But, in many ways, Muschamp’s rant is just a symptom of the structural problems inherent to big-time college athletics. The culprit is the extreme power imbalance created by a system in which coaches can earn market salaries while players cannot. Some defenders of that system justify it in part by promoting the myth that coaches are developing young men for life, but that requires ignoring the allegations about Maryland football and all other evidence to the contrary

You won’t see NFL coaches abuse players because those players are professionals with union representation. Many of those players earn higher salaries than head coaches (which tells you the relative value of each when both are paid according to something resembling a free market). An NFL coach who tried to pull the stuff that’s alleged at Maryland wouldn’t be an NFL coach for long.

By contrast, college football coaches on power trips can be king for as long as they win games and generate revenue. Players are their subjects. Administrators, fans and friendly media are their enablers. Everyone is ready to ignore any bad that comes along with the winning.

At least that’s the way it goes until one of those players collapses during a grueling practice and later dies. Then “disgruntled” players and “gutless” anonymous sources might speak out of turn about alleged abuses in the coach’s program. If something like that gets out of hand, it might be a threat to every college football coach’s fiefdom.

Maybe that’s why Muschamp has more to say about the whistleblowers than the accused wrongdoers at Maryland.

About the Author

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

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