Here’s the bare minimum where it concerns the University of Maryland and its runaway football program: Coach DJ Durkin needs to get out now, if not sooner, and he needs to take his Neanderthal strength coach with him. Three weeks from a season opener against Texas, that’s the least Maryland’s administration can do, even as every office with a hand in assessing the athletic department should feel the ground shift under it.
The simple fact is disturbing enough: A player died on Durkin’s watch. That’s tragic. Amazingly, though, if details in a blistering ESPN report Friday are to be believed — and they should be — it took that tragedy to expose how the coach and his staff ran their program.
That’s why Durkin and members of his staff must go. The specifics of who did what to whom are still to be made public, but Maryland officials know enough. This isn’t some murky NCAA violation or minor misstep. This is about basic human decency. Durkin oversaw the entirety of it, and Saturday evening he was placed on administrative leave by the school. Make that the first step.
We may never know whether the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair could have been prevented. What we know now is that it took this tragedy to expose the culture Durkin created with the Terrapins, which the reporting by ESPN exposes as the worst version of college athletics.
Let’s sift through this mess, but keep that one salient point present as each aspect is picked apart: A kid died in this environment. McNair died of heatstroke. Durkin and Rick Court, his top lieutenant overseeing the physical conditioning of the Terrapins, were present.
There are troubling details at every turn here, and that includes, from ESPN’s reporting, the notion that McNair first suffered a seizure around 5 p.m., roughly 45 minutes into the May 29 workout — but a call to 911 wasn’t placed until 5:58 p.m., nearly an hour later. Maryland officials dispute this account, and a spokesman said Saturday that no coach or athletic trainer or player had reported a seizure near 5 p.m. Either way, McNair was eventually airlifted to a Baltimore hospital, where he died June 13.
The logistical specifics are therefore in dispute. But what’s agonizing regardless is this: Those specifics took place inside a Maryland program that dehumanized the players — the people — it professed to build up.
Football players are supposed to be tough, right? It’s a tough sport, and sometimes the tougher, better conditioned team wins, and any good program (to be clear, Maryland was not and is not a good program, but that’s beside the point) has to foster an environment in which hard work is valued. Pushing through adversity, be it physical or mental or a combination of the two, is an asset. The best coaches get their charges to understand how toughness can benefit them on the field and in life.
That’s not what happened at Maryland. By Durkin’s own description, he worked in concert with Court to instill the values he felt were important to building a winning program. Those values, though, weren’t to get the kids to stare at the challenges before them and overcome. They were to accept intimidation, to allow themselves to be berated and humiliated, and to shut up about it.
College coaches, Durkin included, frequently preach the idea that they are, first and foremost, teachers. Teachers about their sport, of course. But teachers about life, too. For some, it’s clear lip service. But some of them, somewhere, must mean it. It’s an altruistic notion, but it’s the best result of a truly messed-up system: A coach pushes an athlete to realize all he or she can be, and they forge a lifelong relationship built on mutual respect.
But in 2018, that relationship can’t involve the tactics Durkin and his staff reportedly deployed. You might not think that smacking a meal out of a kid’s hand in a fit of rage is particularly egregious. You might find a coaching staff that refers to players who struggle to finish workouts in misogynistic terms, challenging their “manhood,” to be de rigueur. You might think that moving an injured player’s locker into the showers as a way to show him up might be a clever teaching tactic.
And if you do, ask yourself this question: Would I want my child to be taught by people who not only created such an environment but deemed those means as best practices?
I would argue these tactics — just some of what has been reported about Durkin’s program — are cruel. There are two choices about Durkin and his staff: They either had remarkable antipathy about the players as people and saw them only as cogs in a machine, or they had an outright psychosis that prevented them from valuing the players as individual humans with struggles and challenges each his own. Either way, that’s a brutal worldview.
It also leads directly to examination of the power dynamics that are inherent throughout college football programs at the highest level, even if Maryland under Durkin didn’t come close to producing football at the highest level. Durkin makes just shy of $2.5 million. Court makes $296,000. Neither McNair nor his teammates made a dime — and don’t give me that their scholarships make up for their lack of income.
The system in place creates overlords, and the worst among them exploit it. Durkin and Court had the power to treat their players however they saw fit. Had a player not died, there’s no reason to believe they would have changed anything about their behavior. Even with McNair’s death, there are questions about whether anything changed for the Terrapins once training camp began. And even as they struggled with the loss of their teammate, the players clearly felt they had no recourse, zero leverage. What kind of learning environment is that?
More than 30 years have passed since the Maryland athletic department was vaporized by the events surrounding the death of Len Bias, an academic and athletic scandal that led to the resignation of both athletic director Dick Dull and basketball coach Lefty Driesell. The events surrounding McNair’s death have that much weight, and more.
Maryland has to know that. Damon Evans, appointed as the permanent athletic director only this summer, sent a message Saturday morning to staff and boosters in the wake of ESPN’s report.
“I have been clear in the values that should define everything we do, and these reports are not reflective of the culture we seek to build here,” Evans wrote. “I am committed to swiftly examining and addressing any reports brought to our attention.”
The questions are simple: Coach Durkin, did the events take place as described here? If so, clean out your desk immediately. You are not welcome on our campus. The action must be swift.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.