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Maryland says football staff made mistakes treating player before his death, apologizes to family

University of Maryland president said Aug. 14 that the school accepts "legal and moral responsibility" for the decisions made by its athletic training staff. (Video: Reuters)

University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh and the school’s athletic director, Damon Evans, acknowledged Tuesday that team athletic trainers failed to properly diagnose and treat football player Jordan McNair during a workout last spring and apologized to the player’s family for the school’s role in his death.

Loh said the staff failed to recognize that McNair was suffering from exertional heatstroke and did not follow prescribed medical steps to treat it. Evans said trainers never took the player’s temperature and did not ice his body to lower its temperature, steps experts have said would likely have saved his life. Instead, McNair died in a hospital 15 days later.

Loh spoke at a news conference in College Park immediately after meeting with McNair’s family. He said the university “accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on the fateful workout day of May 29.” Loh said he has received progress reports from an ongoing investigation on the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death, “and based upon what we know at this time, even though the final report is not completed, I said to the family, ‘The university owes you an apology. You entrusted Jordan to our care, and he is never returning home again.’ ”

Durkin still has support of many Maryland players’ parents

The death of McNair, a 19-year old offensive lineman, has drawn scrutiny to College Park, where some ex-players and staff members have said the football program operates under a culture of abuse and bullying. As a result of recent news reports, the school placed four people on administrative leave, including the team’s head coach, DJ Durkin. Evans said at Tuesday’s news conference that one of those men — Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach who was running the workout in May — is no longer employed by the university.

Durkin, in his third year at Maryland, was placed on leave Saturday. He was not present at Tuesday’s news conference, and Evans would not speculate on when or if Durkin might return to the team.

Though an attorney for McNair’s family expressed appreciation for Loh and Evans, he said the player’s parents still think the school should fire its head coach.

“He failed here greatly,” Hassan Murphy, the family’s Baltimore-based attorney, said of Durkin. “It’s his program.”

Murphy said the family supports Loh and Evans, who also met with McNair’s relatives in June at the hospital, and commended school officials for their actions on Tuesday. “Dr. Loh showed a level of decency and humanity today,” Murphy said.

But the attorney noted that McNair’s parents, Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, would still probably pursue a lawsuit in federal court and said there have been no settlement talks with the school.

Svrluga: A football player died, and all of the University of Maryland is diminished

Evans became emotional as he recounted meeting with McNair’s parents on Tuesday afternoon. “I have looked into the eyes of a grieving mother and father, and there is simply nothing good enough,” he said.

Loh and Evans both acknowledged that athletic trainers never properly diagnosed the heat-related illness suffered by McNair. Evans said McNair “did not receive appropriate medical care” that day “and mistakes were made by some of our athletic training personnel.”

“We have looked at the preliminary observations that were given to me and others,” Loh said, “and some of our policies and protocols do not conform to best practices. Some of the actions of our athletic training staff — not the coaching staff, our athletic training staff — they basically misdiagnosed the situation. No vital signs were taken; other safeguard actions that should have been taken were not. For me, that was enough to say I need to come and personally apologize.”

Evans said the school has already instituted news safeguards for all athletic practices.

“We have changed how we practice and also how we train our staff,” Evans said. “We have specifically changed how we practice in the heat,” including adding cooling stations and increasing breaks.

The school has contracted with Walters Inc., an athletic training consulting firm, and a review isn’t expect to conclude before Sept. 15.

While that review is focused on safety policies and procedures, Loh announced some details Tuesday of a second external probe that will examine the inner workings of the football program. Loh said he’s assembling a panel of four individuals to “review the practices and culture of the football program.” The members include two retired judges of the U.S. District Court for Maryland, Benson Legg and Alexander Williams, along with Charles Scheeler, who monitored Penn State’s integrity agreement following its sexual abuse scandal. The fourth member, who Loh described as a “highly respected retired head football coach and also athletic director,” will be named soon.

“We will do everything possible that the situation that Jordan McNair found himself in will never happen again,” Loh said.

Evans said he has not witnessed any of the abusive behavior on the football team described in media reports, but “make no mistake, we will not tolerate any behavior from any employee within Maryland athletics that is detrimental to the mental or physical well-being of our student-athletes.”

School administrators and athletic department officials have been under fire in recent days as new details surrounding McNair’s death have emerged and former players and staff members have described untoward, bullying behavior in news reports during Durkin’s tenure as head coach. Many of the most serious allegations center on Court, with former players alleging he often relied on humiliation and fear in his interactions with the team. “The severity of those allegations was significant,” Evans said of Court.

Experts say Maryland may not have acted quickly enough to save football player

Court has not responded to requests for comment, but he posted a message on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon saying he’d resigned his position at Maryland. Court agreed to a settlement offer in which the school agreed to pay him $315,000, two-thirds of what he’s due for the remainder of his contract, according to a person familiar with the agreement.

“The football student-athletes’ mental and physical health remain my number one priority,” he wrote in his resignation letter to the school, “thus I am stepping down to allow the team to heal and move forward.”

Durkin was present at the May 29 workout, though the drills were run by Court and his staff. Hospital medical records suggest that McNair still had a body temperature measuring 106 degrees nearly 40 minutes after a 911 call was placed to report his condition.

Hospital medical personnel were able to lower his temperature to a safer 102 degrees in 12 minutes. Experts in heatstroke say if his temperature would have been lowered within 30 minutes of suffering heatstroke, McNair probably would have survived.

The hospital records say McNair initially showed symptoms of heatstroke 45 minutes into the team’s workout, which began at 4:15 p.m. — more than 90 minutes before his body temperature was successfully lowered at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park.

Maryland officials have strongly disputed that timeline, though they did not reveal any new details during Tuesday’s news conference on the sequence or timing of events at the May 29 workout.

“At no point before or during the external review has a student-athlete, athletic trainer or coach reported a seizure occurring at 5 p.m.,” the school previously said in a statement.

Keith L. Alexander and Roman Stubbs contributed to this report

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