When the Death of A Player Isn’t Enough…


For immediate release
Fritz Polite, President
The Drake Group
(407) 758-0811

When the Death of A Player Isn’t Enough…

NEW HAVEN, CONN. – The Drake Group, a national organization of college faculty and others whose mission is to defend educational integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports, has released a position statement today that criticizes University of Maryland leadership for its myriad failures in the wake of Todd McNair’s death.

Drake Group President Fritz Polite, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at Shenandoah University (VA), stated “No touchdown run, quarterback sack, or long kickoff return could possibly be more stunning than the recent decision by the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents to retain Head Football Coach D.J. Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans despite the death of football player Jordan McNair on their watch. Anyone not blindsided by that outcome surely was by the decision a day later by Maryland’s president, Wallace Loh, to defy the Board by firing Durkin. The Drake Group, which condemned Durkin’s retention, applauds his firing, but stresses that it was necessary, yet not sufficient, to address the sickness in the Maryland football program that precipitated McNair’s death.”

Jordan McNair died last spring during preseason practice, two weeks after he collapsed while running wind sprints in hot weather. Despite the predictability of such a catastrophe under those conditions, Maryland’s athletic trainers were unprepared for it, and an hour and a half elapsed before an ambulance carrying McNair left the football field en route to a hospital.

A subsequent ESPN investigation uncovered a pattern of abuse toward players by Maryland’s coaching staff, especially former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. ESPN described as “toxic” the culture of the football program under D.J. Durkin. Abuses included coaches throwing a vomit-filled trash can at players, players who could not complete a run being dragged across the field, coaches screaming homophobic slurs at players, and the force-feeding of players whom the coaches wanted to gain weight. Such abuses triggered a $315,000 buyout of Court’s contract.

Still, the buck stops at the boss’s desk, and Court did Durkin’s bidding because Durkin supervised Court and expected him to push players beyond reasonable limits. Durkin failed to stop Court’s cruel and demeaning treatment of players. Indeed, Durkin fueled the fire by using perverse motivational tactics during team breakfasts, such as showing videos of serial killers and of electric drills entering eyeballs. Even such perversity, though, pales in comparison to Jordan McNair’s eminently preventable death. Under these circumstances, to find, as a special commission that investigated Maryland football did, that no toxic culture existed there, is to turn a blind eye to reality and tarnish the entire University.

In light of the commission’s conclusion, nobody should be surprised by the decision of the Board of Regents to retain Durkin. Maryland’s move to the Big Ten a few years ago in pursuit of football riches was bound to sacrifice educational and ethical values on the altar of athletic glory. One manifestation of these skewed priorities is a sports-obsessed university governing board micromanaging athletics. The final authority for intercollegiate athletics programs lies with the university president. The board has overall fiduciary responsibility, not the authority to hire and fire football coaches. If a board does not like a president’s decision, its proper action is to terminate the president, not to make an end run around the president, as the Maryland Board did in its choice to retain Durkin, which President Loh opposed. But governing boards cannot seem to keep their fingers out of the athletics pie. A 2009 survey by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that more than seventy-five percent of college presidents felt unable to control their athletics programs because of pressure from their governing boards. The Drake Group urges the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents to examine its relationship to the president and the athletic program so as to become a model for how a governing board should operate.

The Drake Group agreed with the Maryland Board’s decision to “accept the resignation” of President Loh, but not for the reason the Board did so, which was Loh’s desire to fire Durkin. Instead, Loh’s dismissal should result from deficiencies in his athletic leadership. Only a year ago, Durkin and the former Maryland athletic director facilitated payments to a law firm to represent two football players who were accused of sexual assault and attempted to cover up the purpose of the payments.

Instead of firing both men, Loh protected Durkin while the former athletic director took the fall for their joint misbehavior.

Loh’s leadership was equally flawed regarding Jordan McNair’s death. He refused to hold the head coach, the athletic director, and the football athletic trainers responsible. These circumstances should have prompted a housecleaning of athletics leadership and a commitment to a new course designed to make athlete health and welfare paramount. But they did not. Maryland has lost its way in athletics governance despite President Loh’s belated decision to defy the Board by dismissing Durkin. President Loh has failed in athletics leadership and so has the Board, whose first instinct was to throw Loh overboard while casting a life raft in Durkin’s direction. Now, Durkin is gone and Loh soon will be gone. But these problems at Maryland reflect the sickness in Division I athletics. In what has become a familiar scenario nationwide, D.J. Durkin leaves with a golden parachute that exceeds five million dollars and probably will get another coaching job. Jordan McNair’s memory will fade as Maryland and other institutions blunder forward in their misguided quests for football fame and fortune, most likely continuing to sacrifice students’ well-being at the altar of FBS college football.

And while it is likely that Maryland will exert a mighty effort to right its athletics ship, hire a new and higher priced coach with even more charisma and power and keep chasing the golden ring, more important issues are at the door. Maryland must now address the larger-than-football questions being raised by its students as to whether, if McNair had been white, would there have been the months of silence and foot-dragging that followed his death? Unfortunately, this allegation did not materialize out of thin air. Rather, the voiced suspicion is rooted in a series of racist incidents at the institution, from white supremacist flyers on campus, to a noose in a fraternity house to the murder of a local black student. Will the horror of McNair’s passing be a catalyst that forces Maryland to confront these larger concerns of racism on campus? The answer may be the same as to the question of whether we ever expect the predominantly white institutions of higher education chasing the FBS football playoff trophy to face these same issues of racism in athletics. These are the athletics and social justice monsters we have created, and we should all be ashamed of our handiwork.

Drake President Polite closed with, “The most important point that we must never lose oversight of is a young person died, as a student, on a college campus, while his parents, family and friends grieve. We grieve with you.”



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