The University of Maryland bills itself, in its own words, as “one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities.” It says it’s a “global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation.”
“The mission of the University of Maryland, College Park is to provide excellent teaching, research and service,” begins an eight-page mission statement on the school’s website.
Where Jordan McNair is concerned, the University of Maryland provided none of that, nothing close. Rather, this “preeminent” university did not have in place the most basic best practices that save lives.
It’s completely jarring to hear such a simple equation: Had Maryland officials taken McNair’s temperature when he first collapsed, he might be alive. Had Maryland officials been prepared to immerse a player with symptoms of exertional heat stroke in ice-cold water, he would be alive. They did neither. So he’s dead.
That’s staggering. And it doesn’t stop with the athletic training staff. How does a self-described global leader in anything fail to have leadership in place that puts the well-being of the people with whom it’s entrusted above all else?
That’s the smack-yourself-on-the-forehead info from Tuesday’s news conference in College Park — a news conference that came 63 days after McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman for the Terrapins, died. But don’t stop there. Another takeaway, as if this wasn’t apparent already: There’s no way DJ Durkin, the team’s football coach, will keep his job. None. It’s just a matter of time. But let’s get back to that in a bit, because at this point it seems small, particularly when considering how many missteps have been made involving all levels of Maryland’s staff, from athletic trainers to the top administrators.
The purpose of Tuesday’s news conference, which came four days after ESPN published a searing report about the culture of the football program, was ostensibly for university officials to lay out — again, 63 days after McNair’s death — pieces of what it has learned, and to take responsibility for having in place a methodology that allowed a player who should have lived to die.
“The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day,” Wallace D. Loh, the president of the university, said during his statement.
Read that again. In “taking responsibility,” Loh shoveled it right onto the training staff, two members of which have already been placed on administrative leave. What a leader.
You could almost feel each faction staking out its territory Tuesday. Loh spoke for 11 minutes, but took no questions. That responsibility fell to Damon Evans, who was the interim athletic director when McNair collapsed May 29 and then died June 13. Somehow, in the aftermath of that tragedy, Loh saw fit to promote Evans to the permanent position before the university’s snail’s pace independent investigation was completed.
In Evans’s first breath Tuesday, he said, “When I became athletic director in July . . . ” Was he trying to emphasize that he hadn’t been in charge on, say, May 29 or June 13? He had the interim title for almost the entirety of the 2017-18 academic year. A player died during that time. There are two options: Either Evans did not feel empowered to explore the circumstances of the death, or he wasn’t curious enough to do so. Surely, he will lean on the fact that the university enlisted an outside expert to investigate. But does an external investigation prevent the top administrator in athletics from demonstrating baseline curiosity and perhaps asking, “If this happened tomorrow, would we be able to prevent it?”
Instead, this feels like a fight for survival in College Park. Given what happened to McNair, that feels seedy and gross. Ousted Monday was strength coach Rick Court, who “resigned” — and left campus with a $315,000 severance package. Court was the centerpiece of the ESPN report that quoted anonymous former players and staff members saying the Terrapins’ staff fostered a culture in which players were routinely berated and humiliated.
Court’s departure could be seen as a life raft for Durkin, a way for the head coach to say, “See, he took responsibility. It’s on him, not me.” Except it can’t be anything of the sort. Evans met with Court to determine if the egregious behavior outlined in the ESPN report was true. Though Evans didn’t address the details Tuesday, and Court neither admitted nor denied anything in the resignation letter he posted to Twitter, Court no longer works for Maryland. Draw your own conclusions.
Durkin clearly won’t be able to distance himself from Court. He told The Post in 2017: “To me, if the head coach and the strength coach are not totally in line with one another, there’s something that’s going to miss. Me and Rick are in line.”
The head coach and the strength coach, in lockstep. That’s important. So, Mr. Evans, is the head coach responsible for the actions of one of his hires?
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to take a look at that,” Evans said.
At the end of which day, exactly? We now have another external review of the situation. The first aims to reveal what went wrong with the medical and safety procedures in place at the May 29 workout. Even as Loh and Evans revealed the “preliminary” results Tuesday — that Maryland made egregious errors and used outdated policies — the full report isn’t due until Sept. 15. The new panel, which Loh announced Tuesday, will investigate the environment inside Durkin’s program.
Just a thought, but shouldn’t Loh and Evans have wondered about that environment on, say, May 30? This isn’t asking for a rush to judgment. This is asking, 63 days after Jordan McNair died, for someone to stand up and say, “I messed up, and one of our students isn’t here because of it.”
The university — the entire university — is diminished because of all this. Not just the trainers who Loh tried to isolate and will certainly be unemployed soon. Not just the football team’s strength coach, who already is unemployed — though handsomely compensated for his efforts. Not just Durkin, who is on administrative leave as his former team prepares for what feels like a comparatively meaningless season opener Sept. 1 against Texas.
Not just Evans, who said Tuesday that when he was promoted, “My highest priority was to investigate the events surrounding this death.” But he waited for a media report to truly explore the culture in which that death occurred. And not just Loh, who led a public approach since McNair’s death that amounts to these Terrapins pulling their necks into their shells.
All of them are diminished. Tuesday, Loh and Evans drove to Baltimore to meet with Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, Jordan’s parents. Sixty-three days after the death of their son, Jordan’s parents received an apology from the university.
A global leader in anything wouldn’t have waited that long. A preeminent university would employ people who hire well, who delegate appropriately, and who make sure basic safeguards are in place. A preeminent university would then have spent every moment asking the most basic questions with urgency. Sixty-three days after Jordan McNair died, the University of Maryland is still pondering it all — its football coach, its training staff, its direction — and the entire school is diminished because of it.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.