With the findings of an ongoing investigation into the “toxic culture” surrounding the University of Maryland’s football program expected any day now, the Terrapins are continuing to find out just how low rock bottom can get.
University of Maryland student-athlete Jordan McNair died in June of exertional heat stroke which he suffered at a Maryland football practice. A report based on an investigation into the young man’s death performed by Dr. Rod Walters was released on September 21, 2018. This report determined that numerous mistakes were made by the University’s football coaches, athletic training staff, and physicians that contributed to the death of Jordan McNair, which University President Wallace Loh accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for.
The fallout for the University continued over the past weekend, with a Washington Post report revealing some of the alleged toxic behavior within the Maryland football program that will likely show up on the eventual University report. Additionally, the parents of Jordan McNair, through their attorney, asked that University System of Maryland Board of Regents chair James T. Brady and the Board accept “legal and moral responsibility” for Jordan McNair’s death, just as University President Loh has already.
Washington Post Report
The September 30, 2018 report by the Washington Post has no shortage of allegations from former players and parents in regards to the type of atmosphere that existed within the Maryland football program. A former player’s mother alleges to have authored a letter outlining the abuse from Maryland coaches toward their players. This mother states that she hand-delivered the letter to President Loh, and then emailed the same letter to multiple individuals within the Maryland Athletic Department, including former Athletic Director Kevin Anderson. In her letter, the mother describes Durkin’s actions as “abusive”, and says the abusive actions were “extreme and outrageous; intentional and reckless, and the sole cause of the (players’) emotional distress.” While this mother was not sure if any of her concerns were addressed in 2016, when the letter was initially written and delivered, it is expected that this letter will be shared with the individuals conducting the ongoing investigation into Maryland’s football program.
Following mention of the letter, the report began with one unnamed Maryland football player stating that the coaching staff, specifically former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court and head coach D.J. Durkin, had “favorites”, and that these select players received special treatment, including involvement in what Durkin called the “Champions Club”. Another unnamed Maryland football player stated that the “Champions Club” members were rewarded with “bags of gear, great food, (and) massages”, while other non-members “were fed hot dogs and beans.” The same unnamed player stated that if Court and Durkin did not like particular individuals as players, the coaches would become mentally and verbally abusive toward those players. Additionally, as food was allegedly used as a reward for the “Champions Club” and a punishment for non-members, food was also used to fat shame players on weight loss programs. The report includes an example involving a player on a weight loss plan who allegedly had a weigh in that was unsatisfactory to Court, resulting in the player having snacks and Rice Krispie Treats poured on him.
The report further alleges that players were forced to perform workouts beyond their physical limitations, and were ridiculed and berated when the side effect of the physical exertion was vomiting. The allegations include video taping a player vomiting in a trash can, with another instance where a player was allegedly forced to clean up his own vomit after Court threw a vomit-filled trash can across the weight room. Furthermore, players allege that injured players were separated from the rest of the team, and sent to an area known as “The Pit”, where Durkin allegedly referred to players as “a waste of life”. Durkin allegedly denied to investigators ever referring to a player as “a waste of life”, and claimed “The Pit” was not a form of player punishment, but was instead “a safe area for individualized workouts that were customized based on the constraints of (player) injuries.”
In addition to the psychological and physical abuse, the report tells the story of Kimberly Daniels, mother of two former Maryland football players, Elijah and Elisha Daniels. Ms. Daniels goes into detail about how her sons were allegedly verbally abused by Court and Durkin. Ms. Daniels stated that Elisha got the worst of the coach’s abuse, as she alleges the staff was trying to force him to leave Maryland to free up a scholarship. The final straw was when Durkin allegedly said to Elisha, according to Ms. Daniels, “You’ll never be nothing; nobody likes you”, and then asked him “Why don’t you just leave?” Ms. Daniels equated her sons getting out of the Maryland football program to the Underground Railroad.
The allegations in the Washington Post report go deeper and deeper into acts of bullying, players being forced to return to game action before they are healthy, and many other unacceptable practices. However, not everyone believes the environment was toxic, but rather, that the coaches’ tactics were motivational. One player noted that they did not believe that the “Champions Club” was exclusionary, but instead acted as a goal for players, stating “You had to earn (the) right to be called a champion”, and if you were a non-member, “you just knew you had to work harder.” Another player believed that Durkin and Court were not bullies, because they did not appear to get pleasure out of belittling their players, they only sought to make the players better.
“Legal and Moral Responsibility”
While University of Maryland President Wallace Loh has already accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for the death of Jordan McNair, University System of Maryland Board of Regents chair James T. Brady has declined to do so at this point. While calling Jordan McNair’s death a “tragedy”, Brady also stated that he was “not prepared to make that call” due to information still being gathered.
Brady made this statement in response to a letter sent by Jordan McNair’s parents, through their attorney, seeking an apology and acknowledgement of culpability from the Board of Regents. Additionally, the letter seeks to see “all documentation relating to the deaths of other football players within the state”, and asks what lessons the University System of Maryland learned from the 2014 heat stroke death of Marquese Meadow at Morgan State.
What Is Next
As previously noted, the report from the investigation into the alleged “toxic culture” surrounding the University of Maryland football program should be expected very soon. Additionally, a decision on the job status of head coach D.J. Durkin, who is currently on administrative leave, will likely soon follow the release of the investigation report.
The final domino to fall will likely be the commencement of litigation in regards to Jordan McNair’s death. As noted in the first UB Law Sports & Entertainment Forum post on the Walters Report, Jordan McNair’s parents could file a lawsuit arguing wrongful death, negligence, and other causes of action. This seems more and more likely, as the letter sent by Jordan McNair’s parents to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents stated that the board is “leaving the family no alternative but to establish legal and moral responsibility in a court of law.” Additionally, the Prince George County State Attorney’s office is also considering criminal charges, pending the conclusion of the second investigation and the release of a non-redacted Walters Report.
Just as was the case before the Washington Post report, until the report from the ongoing investigation is finalized and released, the Maryland Terrapins will continue to move forward under Interim Head Coach Matt Canada, and the family of Jordan McNair will wait for more answers.
Photo Courtesy: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports
My name is Joe Notartomas and I am a 2019 graduate from the University at Buffalo School of Law, with a particular interest in Corporate and Sports Law. I grew up in Southwest Florida, and before law school, earned my Bachelor's Degree from the University of Florida in 2014. Thanks for reading. - Joe