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Maryland Football Scandal Exposes Dangers of a Toxic Team Culture

Members of Maryland's football team memorialize fallen teammate Jordan McNair. McNair died on June 13 after collapsing during an offseason workout (Credit: Baltimore Sun)

The scandal surrounding the University of Maryland’s football program has taken a number of different turns since the tragic death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June. The controversy has grown to encompass the school’s athletic department, Maryland’s university system, and an entire sport. If you’re just catching up on the story, you can read a full timeline here as well as a summary and additional stories here and here. This opinion piece also echoes common themes from online media over the past several months.

When Jordan McNair began a grueling set of sprints on May 29, he could not have known the tragic implications of his effort, nor the impact he would soon have on his team, his sport, or his community. A 19-year-old offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, McNair was engaged in offseason workouts, a standard practice in a sport that no longer has an actual offseason. At some point during the workout, McNair began to struggle and showed signs of exhaustion. Eventually, he was hospitalized. McNair died just two weeks later.

As is often the case, the tragic death of Jordan McNair would expose a myriad of issues within the Maryland football program, the university structure, and perhaps his entire sport.

Less than two months after McNair’s death on August 10, ESPN published a report that detailed a “toxic culture” in the Maryland football program, citing sources around the program who alleged intense verbal abuse and questionable coaching practices. More than a month later the Washington Post published an article with additional allegations. Both reports centered on Terrapin’s Head Coach D.J. Durkin and Strength & Conditioning Coach Rick Court, alleging that they created a “toxic culture” that was harmful to players and possibly responsible for McNair’s death. Word such as fear, intimidation, humiliation and abuse frequent both reports, with former players and coaches discussing several incidents that resulted in players vomiting or passing out. As one former staff member noted in the ESPN report, “I would never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there.”

If that was the case, why was this “toxic culture” allowed to form and why did it take the death of a student-athlete to expose these issues? The answers to many of the questions can be found in an ideology of success still prevalent in many areas of major college football.

Durkin Leads Terrapins on the Field (Credit: AP)

To a major university and its head football coach, success most often means winning games. As a number of articles on the situation have pointed out, the University of Maryland’s broader goals contributed to investing in an approach that pushed the limits of players, coaches and administration. D.J. Durkin was hired in 2015 to elevate a Maryland program with a history of mediocre results but a new outlook as part of the Big 10 Conference. Considered one of the rising coaches in college football, the then 37-year-old Durkin was known for both his football acumen and intense personality. This intensity was often praised by former colleagues and players; he expected to win, and he would accept nothing less from the players or coaches in his program. As that article suggests, whether Durkin was simply passionate or intense depended on your viewpoint [and likely Maryland’s win-loss record]. Of course, when winning is prioritized above all – when that’s the measure of success – it becomes easy to brush aside any concerns so long as those wins keep coming.

The same holds true for assistant coaches and staff in a program, although in hindsight it appears many at Maryland had their concerns about the culture created by Durkin. According to ESPN, only four members remain from Durkin’s initial staff just two years ago and over 20 players have left the program. While some of that turnover is to be expected, the fact that several spoke to ESPN and the Washington Post for their reports seems to indicate many did not see eye-to-eye with Durkin. So why not go to their Athletic Director or speak out sooner? It’s not a surprise that most of those speaking out now are doing so anonymously. To call out a coach publicly could alienate a future employer, anger his friends in the coaching fraternity, or earn one a reputation as being “soft. For assistant coaches, whose idea of success likely involves working their way up the coaching ladder, it’s a difficult situation indicative of a broader culture in college football. While there are coaches and programs who prioritize more than just winning, a win-at-all costs mentality still dominates the landscape [as proven by recent scandals elsewhere].

Redshirt Freshman Jordan McNair Died on June 13th

This climate ultimately hurts student-athletes. In a culture like the one exposed at Maryland, student-athletes either perform or they are cast-aside. It’s an environment that instills fear and dehumanizes the student-athlete. It’s no surprise that the Washington Post reported “multiple players plunged into depression” or that several sources noted mental and physical concerns due to verbal and psychological abuse. Yet because coaches control the student-athlete’s ability to play – and because many are actually convinced by coaches they are inadequate – most remain silent, afraid to speak for fear they will be ostracized or punished further. This is the sort of culture where a redshirt freshman runs through all the warning signs of heatstroke, and staff keeps pushing him until it’s too late.

So how do we prevent this sort of culture from taking hold? The Play Like a Champion approach emphasizes several components that can help create a safe, fun and developmentally appropriate environment for athletes of all ages and skill levels. The following three tips can help create a positive culture and combat the sort of issues seen at Maryland.

The Play Like a Champion Culture: Rooted in Justice

A culture rooted in the virtue of Justice recognizes the dignity of all team members and treats them with respect. When coaches build positive relationships with their student-athletes, they promote an environment that is better for both personal and athletic development. In addition, coaches should promote positive relationships between teammates and strive for a culture where it’s clear that coaches and players care about each other’s welfare as well as team success. Coaches can still set high expectations for players but should emphasize that they do so because they want what’s best for the student-athlete. Studies show this environment will not only foster a sense of Justice, but also provide the best platform for maximizing the potential of athletes.

Emphasize Process over Results

Toxic cultures often develop in situations where results are the only thing that matter. When winning is everything, teams and individuals often ignore core values, cut corners, or use coaches and teammates to achieve victory. Instead, teams should emphasize process over results. Core values should be the foundation for the team and coaches should take care to assure that student-athletes don’t skip steps but are striving together to achieve both individual and team goals. This environment emphasizes the growth of athletes through workouts and drills, rather than treating each drill as a pass/fail test. Athletes can still push their limits to achieve goals, but don’t do so to an unhealthy degree.

A Winning Perspective

To that end, a positive team culture recognizes that while wins are important, winning should not be pursued at the expense of core values and student-athlete well-being. Though the pressure to win can be intense for coaches at the high school, college and professional levels, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Play Like a Champion places winning in the context of the virtue of temperance, which promotes balance in all things. When wins are placed in this framework, they can be strived for without sacrificing the foundation and values of a positive team culture. What’s more, this culture will very likely promote positive habits and a pursuit of excellence that will lead to wins.

University President Wallace D. Loh Addresses Media (Credit: Time Magazine)

Unfortunately, the culture in the University of Maryland’s football program seems to have been missing these elements. The first two years of Durkin’s tenure were marked by coach turnover and treatment of student-athletes that now seem to be evidence of deeper issues [in addition, the team’s record worsened to 4-8 in 2017, which may not have been a coincidence]. Eventually, this contributed to a tragedy. In the independent report on Jordan McNair’s death that was released in late September, several mistakes made by Maryland staff were detailed, with the author suggesting that McNair’s death may have been preventable. To his credit, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh apologized to McNair’s family and publicly admitted to the University bearing “legal and moral responsibility” in the death. Following ESPN’s reporting on the program, he also put Durkin on administrative leave and commissioned an investigation into the culture of Durkin’s program and that culture’s role in the events that led to McNair’s death.

The completion of that investigation led to an awkward [and perhaps telling] conclusion to Durkin’s tenure at Maryland. On Tuesday, October 30 the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents announced that upon reviewing reports and interviews they had decided… to reinstate D.J. Durkin as head football coach. Predictably, the decision was met with outrage from Maryland students and donors as well as fans and media. The disapproval also extended to Durkin’s team. So great was the response that less than 24 hours later, Maryland’s President Loh announced that he was in-fact firing Durkin. Subsequent reporting revealed internal discord about the best path forward for Maryland’s football program, which suggests that for some, winning games remained a priority until the end.

With so much money and prestige tied to major college football programs, the extreme emphasis on winning games will not change overnight. The hope is that cases like this will continue to expose the dangers of this approach while encouraging teams to create an environment that promotes positive values and student-athlete welfare in addition to athletic excellence. In the end, all of us can learn from what happened at Maryland. If we are truly going to thrive in our role as administrators and coaches, we must begin by creating a culture that goes beyond pursuing results and succeeds in building Champions both on and off the field.

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