University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh stood before reporters Aug. 14 and apologized to the family of Jordan McNair, a football player who died days after a team workout. That day, Loh also announced a commission charged with examining the culture inside the school’s embattled football program, an undertaking that could prompt sweeping changes at the state’s flagship university.
In June, the school had contracted with an outside consulting firm to investigate the events surrounding McNair’s death. But the commission Loh announced nearly two months later would be charged with a separate and broader inquiry into the culture of the school’s football program — a “thorough investigation by an independent group,” Loh said — following media reports that suggested some coaches were abusive toward players, relying on fear, intimidation and bullying.
Few details about the group’s work to date are publicly available, but the commission’s directives and composition reveal some of the inherent obstacles that arise when independent bodies investigate problems in university athletic departments.
In an initial email to the newly appointed commission members, a copy of which was viewed by The Washington Post, Loh advised that some of the allegations they would be investigating “probably occur in every football program” and that the line between aggressive and abusive training techniques is “imprecise.”
Also, several of the commission members have previous ties with the university and the stakeholders in the affair. One served as a personal adviser to Loh. Another is the brother of an influential booster.
Almost immediately after the commission’s unveiling, the University System of Maryland’s board of regents took control from the College Park campus, adding five additional members to the three named by Loh and suggesting that key decisions about the football program’s future would be made by the regents, not necessarily the school president. The vice chair of the board of regents is a prominent donor to the athletics department and has voiced public support for the football team’s head coach, DJ Durkin.
This investigation could go a long way to determining the fate of Durkin, who was placed on administrative leave along with three other member of the athletic staff in the immediate aftermath of the media reports. One of those, football strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, has negotiated a settlement and resigned.
According to multiple people familiar with the process, Durkin was interviewed by investigators on the morning of Aug. 22, and they were particularly keen on questioning Durkin about his alleged use of food to demean players, possible verbal abuse and his handling of injuries.
The commission’s review is expected to also look at the actions of other prominent coaches and staff members, including Damon Evans, who was promoted to athletic director less than two weeks after McNair’s death. Loh, too, could find himself scrutinized by one or both of the external probes. He nixed a plan recommended by the school’s athletic director to fundamentally change the way athletes receive medical treatment and athletic training less than a year before McNair died.
There is no formal deadline for the commission to complete its review of the football program. As for the separate probe of the team workout that resulted in McNair’s death, the board of regents is expected to be briefed on the results of that inquiry at its next scheduled meeting Sept. 21, and the findings will be released publicly later that day.
“We’re trying to get that all done this month, one way or another, so that all the facts we can gather are in front of the board and the campus and then decisions can be made about the future,” Robert L. Caret, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said in an interview last week, “both to protect student-athletes themselves but also to create the kind of environment we want.”
A day after he addressed reporters, Loh sent an email to his three new commission members, as well as a handful of school officials, laying out the assignment. He told them “to interview a sufficiently large sample of current and former players, their parents, athletics staff , and any other relevant stakeholders, in order to make an assessment on whether the relatively few (but deeply troubling) cases of alleged ‘abuse,’ reported anonymously in the media, indicate the existence of a widespread ‘toxic culture’ . . . or, do these reported cases represent only a small portion of the population of football players, present and past.”
Loh told the members that “arguably, a hyper-masculine and insular culture is the norm, rather than the exception, in college football.” Furthermore, he advised them that “some of the alleged verbally abusive or demeaning behaviors probably occur in every football program. It is part of the ‘football culture.’ There is, of course, an imprecise line between training practices that aggressively push players to the limit and are acceptable, and practices that most reasonable persons would deem to be physical and/or emotional abusive conduct.’”
Asked about Loh’s email, Maryland spokesperson Katie Lawson said: “The president acknowledges that athletic programs are by their nature demanding and intense, and he asked commission members to investigate if Maryland’s program crosses a line into destructive or abusive, which is absolutely unacceptable. President Loh has been clear that if such behavior did exist here, it will not be tolerated.”
After assuming ownership of the investigation two days later, the board of regents added five more members to the commission, including former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich and Tom McMillen, the former Terps basketball star who served three terms in Congress.
In expanding the panel, the regents faced the delicate task of appointing people who are sufficiently knowledgeable about football and the school but not too partisan.
“Ideally, you want somebody who has more than a passing familiarity with that space and the cultures that exist in that space,” said a veteran college sports administrator, who requested anonymity so he could speak candidly about the process. “At the same time, that can cause people to be apologists for all that behavior. That’s one of the inherent challenges. I know some of the people on the Maryland committee. They’re good people, but many are affiliated with the University of Maryland.
Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said the composition of the Maryland commission on its face appears sound.
“I think if you have a former a member of Congress, a former governor, other prestigious leaders who are connected or not to the institution, what you can get to is an outcome with a high degree of credibility,” he said. “At the end of the day, credibility allows the board to put greater stock into the recommendations and take whatever actions they’re going to take.”
The web of relationships surrounding the Maryland probe is thorny and highlights several areas of possible concern. The eight commission members, who will be compensated for their work, either declined to comment or did not respond to requests to comment.
Loh made Alex Williams, a well-respected retired U.S. District judge, one of his three initial appointees to the commission. Williams is the founder, chief executive and namesake of a center focused on justice and ethics housed within the university’s school of behavioral and social sciences.
Before joining the commission, Williams had served as a pro bono personal adviser to Loh following the death of Richard Collins III, a 23-year-old student at nearby Bowie State University, who was killed on Maryland’s College Park campus in May 2017.
Don Scheeler, past president of the Terrapin Club, left his name off a letter in support of Durkin that was sent last month to the regents from the Champions Club, a group of high-level sports boosters. His brother, Charles Scheeler, was another of the three commission members appointed by Loh.
Charles Scheeler is a Baltimore-based attorney at the law firm DLA Piper, who previously served as the “independent monitor” charged with tracking Penn State’s implementation of recommendations made in the report that followed the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
He also was a top deputy for Sen. George Mitchell a decade ago in the exhaustive investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Scheeler and his associates at DLA Piper have done much of the commission’s investigative legwork behind the scenes.
Asked about the inclusion of Williams and Scheeler, a spokesman said in a statement to The Post: “Both have the objectivity and talent to contribute greatly to an impartial investigation of the culture of the University of Maryland, College Park football program.
“But they are only two of the eight member independent commission, which is composed of individuals with a broad range of backgrounds and experiences, from both in Maryland and outside the state,” the statement continued. “The commission’s membership is sufficiently large, fair-minded and diverse in perspective to effectively follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
In addition to Ehrlich and McMillen, the other commission members are retired U.S. District Court judge Ben Legg; Doug Williams, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who serves as the senior vice president of player personnel for the team; Bonnie Bernstein, an alumnus of the school and veteran sports broadcaster; and Frederick M. Azar, the chief of staff at Campbell Clinic Orthopaedics in Memphis.
It’s not known how hands-on all eight of the commission members have been. Two of the eight commission members live outside the area, and others have demanding, full-time jobs.
“I think the vast majority of them will have had some hands-on experience,” Caret said in an interview last week. “I don’t know if they’ve met face to face or not. I know they’ve all talked.”
A spokesman for the regents said that once the commission has completed its examination, it will share its findings with the board of regents, which will then “make whatever decisions are necessary to better safeguard and support all students and student-athletes.” The board of regents is made up of 17 unpaid members who oversee Maryland’s system of 12 colleges. With the exception of one student representative, each member is appointed by the governor and can serve a maximum of two five-year terms.
Barry Gossett is a vice chair of the board of regents and also one of the most influential athletic boosters the school has ever known. He donated $10 million in 2007 to build the football program’s “team house,” which bears his name, and this spring pledged more than $21 million — one of the largest donations the school has ever received — to a center focused on athletes’ academic studies.
“From a donor standpoint, I kind of stand behind DJ and his program and what he has been doing,” Gossett told The Post in an interview before the university placed the coach on leave.
Gossett did not respond to requests to comment last week. He had been tending recently to his wife, Mary, who died Monday. The couple have been donors to the school since 1971, championing causes both in and outside of athletics.
“Barry Gossett is a highly regarded member of the Maryland community who has served, and continues to serve, the state in countless ways,” a spokesman for the board of regents said in an email last week. “At the same time, he is only one of 17 members of the Board of Regents, which will receive the findings of the independent commission.”
Like Don Scheeler, Gossett left his name off the Champions Club letter supporting Durkin.
The board doesn’t typically play a role in personnel decisions at the system’s schools, though it does have oversight over Loh, who has led the state’s flagship university since 2010.
“The board obviously can have influence on the president,” Caret said.
Stephen F. Ross, a Penn State sports law professor who directs a cross-campus center on sports issues, said the preexisting relationships on these investigative bodies aren’t usually as important as the underlying motivation behind the appointment.
He says there are scenarios where those preexisting ties could undermine an investigation but others in which they could lend credibility, diversify the commission and appease stakeholders in the event of a critical report.
“To me, an ad hoc committee designed to deal with a major public relations problem is itself an exercise in strategic communication,” he said.
There is no rule book for such investigations and schools can pursue them on their own terms. Similar external examinations have been conducted at schools such as Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State, facing widespread criticism from some corners unhappy with different facets of the respective probes or findings.
The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges issued a formal statement to schools in 2009 saying “it is time for all [governing] boards to reexamine how they exercise their oversight responsibilities.” The organization urged governing bodies, such as Maryland’s board of regents, to refrain “from fostering personal relationships with the athletic director or coaches,” and urging them to “exercise appropriate oversight while avoiding micromanagement, viewing athletics with a dispassionate perspective.”
“We don’t want them running college sports,”Legon said, “but we want them to recognize the buck stops with them.”
Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.