The word “culture” is thrown around a lot in sports. New coaches come in and talk about building a “culture of winning” or a “culture of hard work.” Frequently that attitude is lauded as building character or heralding a new era of competitiveness; but sometimes, the “culture of winning” morphs from an inspirational ideal into a monster that consumes all rational thought. Case in point: Penn State, where Happy Valley’s “football culture” was cited as a major reason administrators failed to handle the Jerry Sandusky scandal appropriately.
Now, the ”culture” of the University of Maryland’s football program is facing national scrutiny. This follows an ESPN report detailing a “toxic coaching culture under head coach DJ Durkin.” According to former players and staffers, Durkin fostered an “environment based on fear and intimidation.” Those interviewed say verbal abuse was common and members of the coaching staff would often humiliate players, mock their masculinity, and force unhealthy eating habits. You can read all the allegations in the full ESPN article.
Questions began emerging about the Maryland coaching staff earlier this summer, following the death of 19-year-old redshirt freshman Jordan McNair. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound offensive lineman died June 13, just over two weeks after he reportedly collapsed while running 110-yard sprints during a team practice. Details of the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death are few and far between. The Maryland student newspaper The Diamondback reports that practice began at 4:15 p.m. On his tenth sprint of the night, McNair began struggling—with one player quoted by The Diamondback describing McNair as being “not in control of his body.” Approximately one hour later, at 5:58 p.m., an unidentified staff member called 911 and reported that McNair was “hyperventilating” and “unable to control” his breathing. At 6:36 pm , McNair was admitted to a local hospital in critical-but-stable condition with a temperature of 106-degrees. (For perspective, the Mayo clinic website says heatstroke can occur if a person’s body temperature rises above 104-degrees). Later that night, McNair was airlifted to the Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He remained hospitalized there until he died. McNair’s family says he died from heatstroke, but no official cause of death has been released.
Details of what happened between the start of practice and when McNair was admitted to the hospital are also unclear. The attorney for McNair’s family claims the teen suffered a seizure on the field a full hour before paramedics arrived. Medical records reviewed by The Diamondback appear to corroborate this claim. Maryland, however, denies it. Officials released a statement on Friday reading, “[a]t no point before or during the external review has a student athlete, athletic trainer or coach reported a seizure occurring at 5 p.m.”
Maryland does admit its training staff messed up. During an extraordinarily candid press conference on Tuesday, University President Wallace Loh, accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for the “mistakes” made by trainers leading up to McNair’s death. Athletic Director Damon Evans admitted that the proper emergency response protocol was not followed and that staff failed to take McNair’s temperature or apply a cold-water immersion treatment.
An external investigation into the team’s handling of McNair’s treatment is ongoing. In June, the school hired a sports medicine consulting firm to investigate the protocols and procedures that were in place/should have been followed. Evans indicated on Tuesday that preliminary results from this investigation led the University to its conclusion that McNair was not properly cared for by its staff. This report is expected to be completed and released to the public by September 15.
Maryland has also launched a second independent, third-party investigation to look into the allegations that the football program had a “toxic culture.” Two former U.S. District Court Judges, an attorney, and an unnamed fourth member will make up the panel focusing on this side of the growing scandal. Coach Durkin and three members of his staff were placed on administrative leave several days ago.
Just hours before Tuesday’s press conference, the program’s strength and conditioning coach, Rick Court (whose alleged behavior was singled out in ESPN’s “toxic culture” report), announced in a post on Twitter that he had resigned to “allow the team to heal and move forward.”
During his speech, President Loh emphasized that the coaching staff would be afforded due process during the investigation–and, as a public institution, Maryland must abide by the constitutional guarantees of due process. According to The Washington Times, Maryland’s status as a public institution means its employees have a qualified immunity to protect against ordinary negligence claims; thus, in any suit that went forward, the plaintiff would have to prove the coaches and staff acted with gross negligence –a much higher standard that, essentially, would require acting with abject indifference to a duty of care.
The candor of Tuesday’s press conference was extraordinary, leading some to speculate that it was done with an eye toward potential litigation and a hope to reach a settlement with McNair’s family. Billy Murphy, the attorney for McNair’s family, has said a lawsuit against the university is “absolutely probable[.]”
Litigation for a heat-related death is not uncharted territory. In 2016, the family of 18-year-old Marquese Meadow sued Towson University (also in Maryland), two-years after the defensive lineman died from complications related to heatstroke. The suit alleged that Meadow and his teammates were forced to run for over an hour on an 80-plus-degree August night as part of a “punishment practice” for violating team rules. It further alleges that, once Meadow was exhibiting signs of heat-related illness, the school never properly took his temperature and the only attempt made to cool him down was by applying cold water to the 300-pound player’s armpits and groin.
According to data from the National Institute for Catastrophic Sport Injury at UNC Chapel Hill, 63 football players died from heat stroke from 1995 through 2017. High school athletes accounted for the majority of the deaths (47), but college students accounted for the next highest total: 12. Given the thousands of athletes that participate in organized football, heath-related deaths are, arguably, rare. What makes them tragic is that, according to experts, many of these deaths would be preventable with the “proper precautions, early recognition and emergency management.” [emphasis added].
The NCAA is aware of the risks the heat creates for football players. Its 2014-2015 Sports Medicine Handbook warns that “the fall sport preseason period is often challenging as August presents added heat risks for sports.” (see p. 27 Preseason Preparation). Football heightens the risks as players frequently workout in full pads and—at least in some positions—players are overweight, another risk factor for heat stroke.
The most high-profile heat-death, and subsequent litigation, involved the NFL, not the NCAA. Seventeen-years-ago this month, Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died after collapsing two days into training camp. In the aftermath, Stringer’s widow, Kelci Stringer, filed wrongful death suits against the Vikings, the NFL, and equipment manufacturer, Riddell. Her claim against Riddell alleged the company had a duty to warn that its helmets and shoulder pads could contribute to heat stroke if used in hot conditions. The suit against the NFL alleged the league had not done enough to ensure that equipment protected players from heat-related health issues. Both of these suits settled and the awards helped establish the Korey Stringer Institute.
The claim against the Vikings was slightly more complicated and was ultimately dismissed by Minnesota’s highest court under that state’s workers compensation laws. The basis of the ruling was that, in Minnesota, a co-employee is only liable for a personal injury incurred by another employee if the employee owed a personal duty to the injured party, and the injury resulted from gross negligence or intentional infliction. Stringer v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club, LLC, 705 N.W.2d 746, 754 (Minn. 2005). The Minnesota Supreme Court held that the trainers who tended to Stringer when he fell ill did not own him a personal duty because actions such as “procuring enough fluids for the team, staying abreast of weather forecasts, or making sure that trainers and interns had the proper equipment” were part of their professional responsibilities. While the high court did not address the negligence issue, a lower court did. That court found there was no gross negligence because the training staff did make efforts to render some assistance to Stringer, including bringing him Gatorade, walking with him to the first-aid trailer, applying iced towels, and calling an ambulance. See Stringer v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club, LLC, 686 N.W.2d 545, 552 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004).
Of course, the elephant in the room when looking at the Stringer case in this context is that Stringer is talking about co-employees—that’s not the same relationship a college student-athlete has with his coaches and training staff. Players are students and the coaches are employees. This system seems to imply a fundamental difference in the duty owed to student-athletes who suit up and take the field. University of Maryland President Wallace Loh essentially acknowledged this Tuesday in both his press conference and a written statement, stating “[the McNair family] entrusted their son to us, and he did not return home.”
It’s not hard to see how a college athlete would push himself to impress a coach he looks up to, or a coach who can determine his future, or a coach who can make life embarrassing and miserable if the athlete cannot keep up. For years, coaches have pushed the boundaries and forced players to work up to and beyond their physical limits. I was raised an Alabama Football fan and grew up hearing about Bear Bryant’s now legendary “Junction Boys” practices at Texas A&M. By today’s standards, those hours-long practices in triple-digit heat and limited water breaks would be unconscionable, if not downright criminal. Yes, I know this is an extreme and outdated example, but those practices were grounded in rationales that are still rampant in college sports: toughening up the players, teaching respect, and separating the pretenders from the true athletes. Sometimes–as may be the case at Maryland–what seems unacceptable is hidden and justified by the “culture of football.”
So what happens now? There are really two intertwined issues at play: the first is ensuring the safety of student athletes; the second is assessing when a program or coaching staff crosses the line in its treatment of players. Both raise questions about whether there needs to be more oversight and accountability both within programs and across the NCAA. Looking specifically at heat-related deaths, this is a situation where the causes and risk-factors are known, yet still every few years another tragedy happens. The death of Jordan McNair should be an urgent wake-up call for all university athletic programs to reevaluate their cultures. Whether they will heed that call remains to be seen.
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