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By Bringing Back D.J. Durkin, Maryland Shows Just How Toxic College Football’s Culture Is

The school has announced the findings of its separate investigations into the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the allegations of a “toxic culture” within the Terrapins’ football program. Its conclusion: reinstate the head coach.

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Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the University of Maryland announced it had fired D.J. Durkin. The decision to reinstate Durkin on Tuesday was met with outrage from the family of Jordan McNair, the 19-year-old Terrapins player who died after an offseason workout, as well as current players and members of the campus community.

In a statement, university president Wallace D. Loh said: ”Since returning to campus after yesterday’s press conference, I have met with the leadership of the Student Government Association speaking on behalf of numerous student organizations; the Senate Executive Committee; Deans; department chairs; and campus leadership. The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.”

The crux of the reasoning is this: The problems in Maryland’s football program were troubling and disturbing, but they were not the fault of head coach D.J. Durkin, and he is the right person to fix them. This is the conclusion drawn by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents on Tuesday, concluding a process that began with the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair and ended with the university absolving the head coach of overseeing a “toxic culture” that led to it.

By now, we know much about the treatment of Maryland players. One member of the football team described being forced to overeat to the point of vomiting as a coach who had told him to gain weight sat with him; others spoke of being forced during team meetings to watch videos of “serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, and bloody scenes with animals eating animals.” One coach, Rick Court, was known to direct antigay slurs at athletes and throw weights, food, and, once, a trash can full of vomit at them. Durkin hired Court in one of his first acts as head coach and once called him the “most important hire I made.” An anonymous email sent to the University of Maryland’s president in 2016, one year into Durkin’s tenure, alleged that coaches were being allowed to “psychologically, physically, and emotionally abuse the athletes.” If there was a problem with the underlying culture, Tuesday’s announcement tells us that the University of Maryland believes it is one that can be solved with a litany of new rules recommended by an external commission — increased oversight, chiefly — and nearly exactly the same leadership.

After months of investigating the team’s culture and the circumstances of McNair’s death, here is the full reckoning. Durkin, who was placed on administrative leave on August 11, will return to work this week, as will the school’s athletic director, Damon Evans. University president Wallace Loh will retire in June, though it is unclear whether this is related. The lone departure is that of Court, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, who framed his August exit as a resignation and received a $315,000 buyout. (The status of two other members of the athletic department who were present the day McNair died and were also placed on leave, director of athletic training Steve Nordwall and athletic trainer Wes Robinson, has not yet been announced; with Durkin and Evans returning to their jobs, it would not be a shock if they were to follow.)

At its core, their reinstatement is a denial. By welcoming back Durkin and Evans, Maryland is insisting that the previous state of affairs was either not their doing or not their responsibility; in a Tuesday message to the “Terrapin community,” Evans went so far as to write that he and Durkin agreed that “mistakes were made,” that favorite crutch of nonculpability. This has proved an unconvincing argument to many, including some members of the football team: On Tuesday afternoon, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg reported that several players walked out of a meeting with Durkin after his reinstatement was announced. “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face,” McNair’s father, Marty, told reporters.

That the culture as overseen by Durkin was fundamentally not “toxic,” and that the problems that arose were isolated incidents propagated by since-dispensed bad actors, were the principal arguments of the report delivered last week to Maryland’s Board of Regents and published by The Washington Post shortly thereafter. That report, nearly 200 pages long and written by a team of independent investigators commissioned by Maryland for this purpose, is worth reading in full. It’s also worth considering how it came about.

Piece of context no. 1: The external commission that prepared it was in fact the second group convened by Maryland to investigate the circumstances of McNair’s death. Players described the initial investigation to ESPN, describing a situation in which they spoke to investigators in a room adjacent to Durkin’s office; a sign-up sheet was posted on the wall outside, where Durkin and other coaches could see the names of any players who engaged investigators.

Piece of context no. 2: This second commission came about days after ESPN published a story with the headline “The inside story of a toxic culture at Maryland football.” At that point, little had changed with the team. Court was still running drills at preseason camp when the story was published; players told ESPN that the intensity of practices had eased immediately after McNair’s death and then returned to their previous state, before suddenly easing again in the days before ESPN published its story — at which point the university surely knew the piece was coming. That the second Maryland report was reactive is a given — but it wasn’t responding to the death of a teenager left under university employees’ care. This commission was brought in explicitly in response to some ugly press, and in particular, it turns out, in response to the phrase “toxic culture.” Durkin, Court, Nordwall, and Robinson were placed on administrative leave one day after the ESPN story was published. Eleven weeks had gone by since McNair collapsed. Eleven weeks had gone by since the adults with him that day waited too long to get him medical treatment.

Let’s be clear about what happened at Maryland. During an afternoon practice on May 29, McNair, a redshirt freshman, began to struggle, having difficulty standing upright. We now know that he was suffering from heatstroke, but he continued to participate in a series of 110-yard sprints. Reports suggest that the coaching staff that day was unconcerned with their young player’s difficulties; teammates said later that Robinson, the athletic trainer, yelled at players coming to McNair’s assistance to “drag his ass across the field.” Still, no one called 911, and his condition continued to worsen. He suffered a seizure. A 911 call was finally placed more than an hour after he first began to struggle and only after a call to a team physician. In the call to 911, McNair is described as “unable to control” his breathing. In the ensuing weeks, he was airlifted to a Baltimore trauma center and received a liver transplant. He spent the last 15 days of his life in the hospital as doctors tried to fix the damage he suffered that afternoon in College Park. The cause of death was heatstroke.

Jordan McNair’s death is a tragedy. It is also something that did not happen in a vacuum, and we dishonor him to act as though it could have. This was not a case of one bad coach or one overly aggressive trainer. We know that Durkin and Court were considered to be exceptionally close, that Court’s contract stipulated that he report directly to the head coach, that players told the commission that “there was little benefit in approaching Mr. Durkin with frustrations, particularly about Mr. Court, because they viewed Coaches Court and Durkin as ‘the same person.’” We know that the atmosphere within the Maryland football team was one where adults and students alike feared speaking out, where second-guessing about the welfare of players was cause for virtual excommunication, where failures to follow occasionally brutal athletic orders were occasion for mockery and public humiliation. We know, in essence, that the devastating way that McNair was treated last May — the too-high demands, the berating when those demands could not be met, the feelings that compelled a 19-year-old to keep trying to run even as he felt his body failing — were the norm. This was not the work of one person.

A player died at Maryland because of the culture that was allowed to fester there. It was toxic and deeply so, and — with Durkin still at the helm, with all but one of his staffers returned to their posts, with the implicit command to just keep on winning — it will remain toxic. To pretend otherwise — to insist, however implausibly, that Durkin didn’t know how his players were being treated, or that it was not his explicit duty to make sure that the young men under his charge were safe — is not just reckless. It is a disgrace.