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Caught in crossfire, attorney calls Maryland athletics a ‘dysfunctional viper pit’

Former Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson disputed a statement released by the university Thursday evening.
Former Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson disputed a statement released by the university Thursday evening. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The Alabama attorney thrust in the middle of a Maryland athletics controversy said the health and safety of the school’s athletes are compromised by “the political gamesmanship, internal backbiting and administrative incompetence” from the school’s athletic department.

Don Jackson, the Montgomery, Ala.-based attorney hired by the school last year, called the department a “dysfunctional viper pit” in a scathing Facebook post Friday evening and said he has been dragged into the middle of an “administrative civil war.”

In a statement Thursday evening, the school said Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson had authorized what amounted to a $15,000 payment in summer 2017 for the legal defense of two athletes and that Anderson had used “a serious lack of judgment” in retaining Jackson’s firm, the Sports Group. Two people familiar with the situation told The Washington Post that football Coach DJ Durkin was the one who initially reached out to Jackson, and the attorney said his interaction with Anderson, who resigned in April, was minimal. Durkin has not commented on the allegations surrounding his program.

The entire matter could become part of a broader investigation into the school’s football program. The system’s board of regents has appointed an eight-person commission to examine the program in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death stemming from a team workout and media reports that suggest coaches fostered an abusive, unhealthy culture. On Friday afternoon, the school announced the commission would include former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich; Redskins vice president of player personnel Doug Williams; former congressman and Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen; alumnus and sports broadcaster Bonnie Bernstein; and Frederick Azar, the chief of staff at Campbell Clinic Orthopaedics in Memphis.

Panel probing Maryland football includes former governor, ESPN broadcaster and a Super Bowl MVP

The sexual assault allegation, which led to the expulsion of a football player, according to three people familiar with the case, predates McNair’s death and the recent allegations surrounding the program.

“The University System of Maryland (USM) is committed to investigating and resolving all allegations of sexual misconduct in a timely, thorough and impartial manner,” a spokesman for the University System of Maryland said in a statement Friday evening. “The information related to these distressing and unacceptable events will certainly inform the work of the commission created to investigate the culture of the University of Maryland, College Park football program, and ultimately any steps the Board of Regents determine are necessary as a result.”

The commission has no stated timetable to wrap up its probe, and if Jackson’s comments are any indication, the panel will have plenty to sift through.

Jackson told The Post that he has worked with Maryland athletes for the past three years on issues related to eligibility. He was handling a case involving a Maryland basketball player when he was contacted last summer and hired to represent two football players accused of sexual assault.

He was eventually paid $15,000 for his work on the case before he was told his services were no longer needed. A school spokesman said the money came from Anderson’s discretionary account with the University of Maryland College Park Foundation.

“I did my job,” Jackson wrote on Facebook, “represented Maryland student-athletes well and strongly resent being pulled into an administrative civil war. In over two decades, I have never worked in a more uncomfortable, chaotic and unstable environment in a collegiate athletic department.

“Every employee seemed to [figuratively] carry daggers that they were prepared to thrust into the backs of their co-workers,” he continued. “University of Maryland student-athletes deserve better.”

School officials were quick to dismiss and rebut Jackson’s criticisms.

“This viewpoint, expressed by someone who has not worked with the Athletics Department since 2017, doesn’t represent our current leadership and is insulting to the coaches, staff and talented student-athletes we serve,” a Maryland spokesman said in response Friday night.

As Maryland AD, Anderson used school funds to defend football players in sex assault case

Damon Evans, Anderson’s top deputy and eventual successor as athletic director, flagged the legal arrangement to school administration, which ordered Anderson to end the relationship with the Sports Group immediately. The school said it learned nearly a month later “that its previous instruction to cut ties with the attorney had not been followed” and an internal investigation was launched.

On Thursday night, Anderson told The Post: “That report is inaccurate.”

The school announced that Anderson would go on a six-month sabbatical Oct. 16. Evans served as interim athletic director during that time and was named permanent athletic director June 25.

Maryland’s Office of General Counsel issued a statement earlier Friday that explained why the payment from the athletic department was potentially problematic for the school. NCAA rules do not prohibit a school’s athletic department from paying for legal services related to an athlete’s eligibility. But the NCAA’s executive committee passed a resolution in 2014 instructing athletic department officials to “not manage, direct, control or interfere with college or university investigations into allegations of sexual violence.”

Maryland’s general counsel said the school-funded lawyer perpetuated “an unfair advantage for the accused over their accuser.”

The school statement noted that the “inequitable situation” continued after the university ordered Anderson to sever ties with the law firm.

“This fact was not reported back to the university administration,” the general counsel’s statement read. “If it had, other measures to remedy the inequity, such as providing an attorney for the other party, could have been taken.”

Roman Stubbs, Sarah Larimer and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

More on Maryland:

Maryland football grants release to freshman, allows him to transfer

Maryland basketball schedule is filled out with release of Big Ten slate

Boomer Esiason calls for Maryland president, AD to exit in wake of Jordan McNair’s death