The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Maryland football players reach settlement over abuse claims from DJ Durkin tenure

Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waves a flag to honor Jordan McNair before a game in 2018. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Two former University of Maryland football players settled a lawsuit for $200,000 apiece after accusing former coach DJ Durkin of running a toxic program and subjecting the athletes to “constant, inescapable physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office reached an agreement with Gus Little and E.J. Donahue last month in the last unresolved legal challenge stemming from offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death and Durkin’s contentious tenure in College Park. Maryland struck a deal with McNair’s family in January, agreeing to a $3.5 million settlement.

McNair died in June 2018 after suffering exertional heatstroke at a team workout. In the weeks that followed, some players and staff began to speak out about their experiences in the program, voicing concerns about a culture that was abusive to athletes and didn’t empower them to voice their concerns. Little and Donahue first shared their experiences in The Washington Post in September 2018 and filed a lawsuit against the school in August 2019, also naming as defendants Durkin; Rick Court, the school’s former strength and conditioning coach; and Wes Robinson, a former head athletic trainer.

The state of Maryland, on behalf of the school, settled the matter on behalf of all of the defendants. The school admitted to no wrongdoing, according to a copy of the settlement. A school spokesman declined to comment Thursday.

“The biggest takeaway from this type of a lawsuit is providing real change and real consequences for fostering a culture in a scholastic academic setting,” said Malcolm Ruff, one of the Baltimore-based lawyers who represented the former players. “There should be more oversight, and there should be absolutely no way that this type of a culture should ever be able to be established and perpetuated against student-athletes.”

In their complaint, the players said Durkin “intentionally instituted a toxic culture of cruelty, humiliation, [and] degradation,” and both said they had suffered from a variety of issues stemming from their time with the team, including thoughts of self-harm, anxiety, insomnia and depression.

“Working in tough environments is one thing, and being coached hard is one thing,” Little said in an interview Thursday. “But what we went through at Maryland was not that at all. It was definitely toxic and crazy. It was verbal, mental and psychological abuse on a lot of different levels.”

The school conducted two investigations — one on the events surrounding McNair’s death and another on the culture within Durkin’s program. The commission probing the program outlined many of the same problems mentioned in the ex-players’ lawsuit, including abusive language, the intensity of workouts, mistreatment of injured athletes and instances of abuse or bullying.

That commission said in its October 2018 report that it “found that the Maryland football team did not have a ‘toxic culture,’ but it did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”

The affair led to Durkin losing his job, hastened the departure of university president Wallace D. Loh and prompted the resignation of James T. Brady, the former chair of the University System of Maryland’s board of regents.

Most of the football staff turned over since McNair’s death, and the school instituted new policies and measures to ensure players receive proper medical care and have channels to voice concerns.

I knew it was the right thing to do,” Donahue said of coming forward. “I just wanted to validate the experiences that led to Jordan’s death. There was a structure put in place on purpose by people with power, and it led to a direct result of Jordan dying.”

They met with the commission that probed the culture of the program.

“I just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t all whitewashed,” Little said. “I just wanted to speak up. I’d rather speak up about my word than hold on to it. And, you know, I’d rather not suffer in silence about stuff like that.”

Little and Donahue were recruited by former coach Randy Edsall. Durkin was hired in December 2015, and the two players left Maryland following the 2016 season, transferring to James Madison, where each paid out-of-pocket for tuition.

They were represented by Billy Murphy’s legal firm in Baltimore, the same group that represented McNair’s family. According to court records, the school asked a judge to dismiss Little and Donahue’s case in March, but Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Cathy Serrette allowed most of the claims to move forward. Nikoletta Mendrinos, one of the players’ attorneys, said the sides began mediation shortly after.

Ruff said the case was important to “send notice to other coaches all over the country that this type of behavior will not be tolerated and will be addressed.”

Durkin has been an assistant at Mississippi since January 2020. In June, Court was hired to serve as a strength and conditioning coach at a high school in Greenville, Mich. Neither has had to pay damages related to the legal settlements.

“I think that they will continue to be pariahs in the sports world to a degree,” Ruff said. “I mean, they may always be able to move about the sports world and get jobs here and there, but they will never have the status that they had before. I don’t see Durkin ever getting a head coaching job again, and if anyone ever hired him as a head coach, that would be reprehensible.”