Despite a week of tumult, the commission that probed the culture of the Maryland football program still thinks the university has an opportunity to become a nationwide leader in the medical care it delivers to athletes.
“I hope that once the dust settles on these personnel controversies, Maryland addresses what we hope will be the legacy of all of this, which is they became the gold standard for student-athlete health,” said Charles Scheeler, the Baltimore attorney who helped lead the commission.
While much of the attention last week focused on high-profile and controversial personnel maneuverings — the firing of football coach DJ Durkin and the planned retirement of Wallace D. Loh, the university president — Maryland also agreed to take action on the commission’s many recommendations, which include an overhaul of its medical model, effectively putting many health decisions in the hands of medical professionals who are not employed by the school’s athletic department.
The athletic department’s medical care has been under the spotlight since offensive lineman Jordan McNair died in June. The eight-person commission presented its 192-page investigative report and shared its recommendations in a three-hour presentation with the University System of Maryland Board of Regents on Oct. 19. The regents accepted the findings, and Loh said at a news conference last week that he did as well, even though he’d previously nixed a proposal to revamp medical care and institute an independent model.
“We believe Maryland could accept the responsibility to become the gold standard of student-athlete health and welfare,” Scheeler said in a phone interview. “That would be the most appropriate way to honor Mr. McNair’s legacy. We think that Maryland should devote resources and very significant effort to this, and we believe it should be part of a larger national conversation about student-athlete health and safety.”
The commission’s work was wide-ranging, looking at what player experiences at Maryland, inner-office dynamics in the athletics department and whether the school was following best practices. While the report cited several instances of concerning behavior, Scheeler, an attorney with DLA Piper, said the investigators did not find the culture of Maryland football to be substantially different from those of other programs. That in itself, though, is troubling, he said.
“One of the things that we heard from many persons in the college football industry that concerned us was not how unusual Maryland’s culture was but how many college football experts thought it was not that unusual,” he said. “We don’t know how unusual it is, but we think there should be a national conversation about this college football culture. We very strongly believe that the standard should be to motivate but not denigrate student-athletes.”
The commission’s report was unwavering in some of its recommendations, saying Maryland “has no credible alternative but to become a leader in the development and implementation of sports medicine best practices.”
Most universities still use what’s referred to as a traditional model, in which athletic trainers and others responsible for medical care are employed by the athletic department. In recent years, schools are starting to switch to an independent model, in which the athletic trainers are employed outside the department — usually by a medical school or hospital associated with the university — and they’re not supervised by coaches or athletic department officials. In theory, this gives them more autonomy and ensures they’re able to make decisions based solely on an athlete’s health and safety, with no pressures related to competition.
This model is considered the gold standard in college athletics, and the NCAA adopted a measure in 2016 that called on schools to “establish an administrative structure that provides independent medical care.”
Former Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson proposed instituting an independent model in May 2017, calling for athletic trainers to report to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. But Loh rejected the plan because he didn’t want to cede control to another university, as The Washington Post first reported in August.
Loh has defended the school’s current model and said last month, “Whether it is administratively overseen by University of Maryland Baltimore or University of Maryland College Park, that’s not the key issue. It’s not who pays the paychecks. It is who are the personnel, and the final word is always the physicians. It is not the coaches, and it is not the athletic department.”
Under Maryland’s organizational flow chart, most of the sports medicine operations are housed in the athletic department, though Valerie Cothran, from the Baltimore-based medical school, serves in a supervisory role.
The commission is careful to note that there’s no way to know whether a different model of medical care would have saved McNair’s life. The 19-year-old offensive lineman suffered exertional heatstroke at a team workout on May 29 and died 15 days later. The school has repeatedly accepted responsibility for mistakes its employees made that contributed to McNair’s death. The athletic trainers on hand failed to diagnose or properly treat the player. Steve Nordwall, the assistant athletic director for training, and Wes Robinson, the head athletic trainer for the football program, have been on administrative leave since Aug. 10.
“Even if an independent medical model was in place, it’s hard to say what would have happened that day,” said commission member Fred Azar, who serves as the chief of staff at the Campbell Clinic and director of the sports medicine fellowship program in the University of Tennessee-Campbell Clinic department of orthopedic surgery. “What this does, though, is it puts in place checks and balances and looks at the sole interest of student-athletes’ health and safety.”
The team has instituted several new measures since McNair’s death. It has hired new athletic trainers who have been working with the football team, added cooling stations at practices and ramped up training for medical staff. The athletic department has also decided that the strength and conditioning coach will no longer report directly to the football coach.
Another external report on the football program, the Walters report, which was focused more specifically on the events surrounding McNair’s death, also urged the school to use a model that insured “any person with oversight, influence, or impacting personnel caring for the health and welfare of student-athletes should be outside the influence of coaches.”
Even after Loh defied the regents' recommendation on Durkin and board chair James T. Brady resigned under pressure last week, the board of regents reiterated its intention to appoint an independent monitoring group in the coming weeks that will make sure the College Park campus takes action on the commission’s recommendations — “including the adoption of a medical model,” the university system said in a statement.