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Maryland Sold Its Soul Only to Fire D.J. Durkin

Just one day after announcing that it would retain Durkin, the university fired its head coach amid a wave of public outcry. What does this reversal say about college football’s power structure—and its history of prioritizing winning above all else?

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A significant portion of the college football world was quick to point out that Maryland was wrong for announcing Tuesday that it planned to retain D.J. Durkin as its head coach. Most of this criticism focused on how morally disgusting it was that the school, after an extensive investigation and multiple Board of Regents meetings, elected to stand behind the coach, whose program was responsible for the June 13 death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. Much of this criticism also focused on a callous aspect of the decision: People simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that the Terrapins chose to keep Durkin when he’d apparently been so awful off the field and so lackluster as a leader on it.

We have learned a lot about Durkin’s Maryland tenure over the past few months, and the gist is that he should not be allowed to coach talented young people, or untalented young people, or any human beings, period. A 192-page report commissioned by the university revealed that his staff intentionally intimidated and shamed players as part of their strength-and-conditioning program. Former strength coach Rick Court threw weights at Terrapins players, called them anti-gay slurs, and forced them to watch “disturbing videos” of “serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, and bloody scenes with animals eating animals” while they were eating. In one instance, a player got sick and vomited into a trash can during a workout. According to the report, “Court then shoved the player against a refrigerator in the gym and forced him to clean up his own vomit from the trash can, which Mr. Court had thrown across the weight room.” This is the culture in which McNair pushed himself to death while doing an exercise on a summer afternoon, and in which coaches ignored McNair having a seizure as a result of him doing so.

There’s no evidence that Durkin knew about Court’s treatment of players, but it seems unfathomable that he could be naive to it. There’s a phrase Football Guys love that goes, “You’re either coaching it or you’re allowing it to happen.” That typically applies to cases in which head coaches take responsibility for things like running backs having poor blocking technique. It should also apply when staffers are hurling cans of vomit at teenagers.

This is the sort of stuff that bad coaches think works. You never hear Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney explaining why they force players to watch Lars von Trier films during breakfast. They don’t substitute torture for teaching players to succeed. What transpired at Maryland is the work of people who see football as fascism, and think football as fascism is a good thing. These people think the winning team is the one whose coaches maintain absolute control over their players.

Durkin was a bad coach. His Terrapins went 10–15 overall and 5–13 in the Big Ten in his two first seasons at the school. The criticism of Maryland’s decision that mentioned this badness was callous, but pragmatic: College athletics has a history of prioritizing winning over doing the right thing, as winning means happy fans, happy fans mean an influx of money, and thus winning has been known to buy coaches moral leeway. What was so astonishing about Maryland’s choice was that the university risked its reputation to protect a coach who doesn’t win. Why would the school sell its soul simply to keep D.J. Durkin?

As of Wednesday evening, Durkin is gone. After intense public outcry, including from several players who didn’t want to play for the coach who oversaw the death of a teammate, Durkin was fired about 24 hours after the school’s Board of Regents recommended that he be reinstated immediately. Eventually, Maryland made the decision to oust the bad coach who did bad things, but only after proving that the people in power at the school backed him in spite of everything. The way that all of this went down reveals the true nature of college football’s power structure — and it’s unclear how much of it is wrapped up in the traditional winning-over-everything mentality that pragmatists presume.

The mother of the college football player who died during an offseason conditioning drill cried when a judge ordered her to take a $16 million settlement from the school responsible for her son’s death. These were not tears of joy, but of frustration, in that she realized she’d never achieve the outcome she felt her son deserved. “It’s like a communist country,” she said. “I am the mother. It’s a travesty.”

This mother had fired three sets of lawyers who advised her to take the cash, and had taken to representing herself. She demanded the school’s coaches be fired; that a memorial be built in her son’s honor. She didn’t want the damn money. She wanted justice.

This is not a story about Jordan McNair’s mother, but about the mother of Rashidi Wheeler, a Northwestern football player who died during a drill in 2001. I went to Northwestern, and can tell you that it is far from a football powerhouse. The Wildcats have a 50,000-seat stadium and maybe 25,000 fans. But Wheeler’s death showed how Northwestern prioritized football over everything. A university doctor burned the records of Wheeler’s final medical checkup, preventing investigators from concluding whether the team had given the asthmatic player proper treatment. A trophy honoring Wheeler was introduced and later discontinued. A memorial charity run for Randy Walker, the head coach of Northwestern when Wheeler died, operates to this day.

Wheeler died August 3, 2001, just two days after Minnesota Vikings player Korey Stringer died of heat stroke during fall camp. The NFL, with its own mixed track record on player health, acted upon that news immediately, taking steps to ensure that its players weren’t working themselves to death. No NFL player has died during an offseason conditioning drill since. Meanwhile, 30 college football players have died in offseason training since 2000. In July, Darius Minor died at Maine; last June, Tyler Heintz died at Kent State; in February 2016, Solomon Jackson died at Buffalo.

I don’t know how many of these deaths happened at programs with cultures as toxic as Maryland’s. We know what we know about Maryland only because ESPN produced an investigative report, and the public response to that report pressured the university into commissioning a second report that revealed even more damning information. Yet college football has too many workout-related deaths for ESPN to launch investigations into every school that has one.

What we do know is that college strength coaches have a disproportionate amount of power over what players do in the spring and summer months, when their contact with other coaches is limited by NCAA rules. These rules theoretically exist to preserve the virtuous life of a student-athlete, ensuring that players have enough time to tend to their studies. In reality, these rules exist so that schools don’t have to pay student-athletes. If head and position coaches were allowed unfiltered access to players, it would be hard to argue that these athletes were not professionals. So actual practice time is limited, but strength coaches are allowed to oversee player workouts year-round.

Because of this, strength coaches are some of the most important people in college football; they’re essentially in charge of their programs for months at a time. And some strength coaches have abused this power. A few years ago, Iowa’s strength coach worked a bunch of his players so hard that they developed a muscle syndrome known as rhabdomyolysis. Iowa’s head coach later invented an “assistant of the year award” to give to that strength coach, who is now the highest-paid strength coach in the country. It seems impossible that the people responsible for the most strenuous part of training programs have such little oversight. At Kent State, it turned out that the strength coach overseeing workouts on the day of Heintz’s death wasn’t even certified.

What happened at Maryland offers a window into the strange czardom of the strength coach. The university hired an athletic director, who hired a head coach, who hired a strength coach, who was given complete autonomy over months of workouts with the intention of implementing the head coach’s plans for the team. But the head coach was legally prevented from carrying out these plans — and in turn, Durkin could argue that he was blameless in McNair’s death. The athletic director, Damon Evans, could argue that he wasn’t employing hiring a head coach who was responsible for a player’s death, and the school could feel fine about who was in place as its athletic director.

The school parted ways with Court in August, paying him a lump sum of $315,000. Everybody was protected.

Some people appear to be wired to reflexively back authority. If a police officer shoots an unarmed civilian, these people will automatically back the cop, and attempt to smear the reputation of the person who got shot. If a woman describes sexual assault by a politician (or even a comedian), these people will seek to dismiss the woman’s account. If a rich or powerful person does something wrong, these people will instinctively believe that the rich or powerful person is under attack, seemingly without the need to know more.

These people came out in droves to support D.J. Durkin. Maryland student newspaper The Diamondback interviewed some boosters who stood by Durkin, including one who essentially blamed McNair for his death. “Jordan didn’t do what Jordan was supposed to do,” the booster said. “When the kid didn’t drink the gallon he knew he had to drink, that’s going to send the wrong signal to the person running the drill.” Another booster told The Washington Post that Durkin was “being made to hang out to dry and that some of these so-called athletes are looking for participation trophies.”

The Diamondback article struck a nerve with me, because it wasn’t hard to imagine these same boosters panning Durkin. Approximately 97 percent of the time “boosters” are mentioned in college sports stories, it’s in reference to deep-pocketed donors turning against a coach who hasn’t won enough. Durkin didn’t win enough at Maryland. He even lost a game to Rutgers.

Yet Maryland chose to retain the coach whose program caused a player’s death anyway. Most D-I college football programs are run by a lot of rich people. There are the boosters, who have enough money to donate tens of thousands of dollars to college athletic departments annually; and the administrators, who are paid big salaries primarily to appease the boosters. Administrators hire an athletic director, who is then paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to decide which head coach should be paid millions of dollars. If there was a reason why Maryland officials were OK with Durkin staying at the school, it was because they gained power through his power. If Durkin couldn’t be fired, none of them had anything to worry about.

Luckily, everyone else stood up against this. The decision to keep Durkin employed was bashed by Maryland’s student government, the governor of the state, and many players on the team. Some walked out of the meeting in which Durkin’s retention was announced. Another tweeted this:

At that point, Durkin could not have stayed on as Maryland’s coach. The school was losing fans, players, and any recruits uninterested in playing for a coach who oversaw a player’s death. The team would have taken a major downturn had it kept Durkin — and remember, it’s not like the Terrapins were thriving under Durkin in the first place. The people in power, it turns out, do not have more power than the fans who buy tickets and the players who play the games.

This dynamic has been on display several times over the last few years. Missouri’s football team threatened a boycott until the school’s president resigned after a series of racist incidents on campus. He did, two days later. Last year Tennessee fans protested after the school announced its plans to hire Greg Schiano — who, during his stint as a Penn State staffer, may have been aware of former Nittany Lions coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape of children. The school backed out of hiring Schiano at the last second.

Players and fans have the power. That’s a good thing. The question now is whether players and fans will use it even when it hurts a team’s chances at winning. Would Maryland’s fan base have been so uproarious if Durkin was 15–10 and not 10–15? Would Tennessee fans have been so adamant about stopping the Schiano hiring if he hadn’t previously gone 11–21 as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? There’s a reason why it was unsurprising when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer kept his job after it became clear that he knew about his longtime assistant’s history of domestic violence, just as there’s a reason everyone was stunned when Durkin kept his job. Our morality tends to kick in when we think it can help our football team.

The idea that college football is run by a bunch of people concerned with winning and the money that comes with it is wrong. College football is run by a bunch of people concerned with saving their own ass, and the asses of others like them. If we make these people fear for their asses, they will do the right thing. It’s up to us to make the powers that be feel fear whenever they act morally wrong, not only when they do wrong and their team has recently lost to Rutgers.