clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Tragedy of Maryland Football Is a Symptom of College Football’s Rotten Culture

A good coach cares about the line between “tough love” and cruelty. DJ Durkin is not a good coach.

A treated photo of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin AP Images/Ringer illustration

On August 10, 2016, the Carroll County Times ran an article detailing what football practice is like under Maryland head coach DJ Durkin.

That day, Durkin, who intentionally scheduled practice during the hottest parts of the day to build “mental toughness,” made his players rerun the last 20 yards of a trip across a practice field as they moved from one drill to the next.

“No one cares if you’re tired,” Durkin said to them. A year and a half later, those words echoed back with a sickening irony.

On May 29, 2018, some time after 4:15 p.m. ET, 19-year-old lineman Jordan McNair began to have difficulty completing a sprint drill, finishing the 10th of his 110-yard runs with the assistance of teammates, while head athletic trainer Wes Robinson yelled at those teammates to hold McNair up, according to an ESPN investigation into the culture of abuse in the Maryland football program. Around 5 p.m., McNair suffered a seizure. It was nearly another hour after that before anyone called 911, and 15 days later, McNair died of heatstroke at the Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Two and a half months later, on August 10, ESPN published the results of its investigation, singling out Durkin and strength coach Rick Court for a pattern of player abuse. The next day, the university placed Durkin on paid administrative leave, and on Tuesday, school president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans announced that the university took “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death.

We apologize for the mistakes that were made,” said Evans, stretching the limits of the passive voice’s ability to deflect blame.

Court parted ways with the university with a lump sum payment of $315,000, two-thirds of the value of his remaining contract. Durkin remains on leave.

McNair’s death might be the inciting incident for the investigation into Durkin’s alleged reign of terror, but it’s far from an isolated event. Sources told ESPN numerous stories of Maryland coaches humiliating and intimidating their players: Court throwing weights in a player’s direction, or slapping a plate of food out of a player’s hands as he’s rushing to make a team meeting. Maryland coaches allegedly forced a player they wanted to gain weight to eat until he vomited, then forced another player they thought was overweight to eat candy bars while his teammates worked out in front of him.

There are many words for that kind of coaching style, but I’ll choose one in particular: bullying.

McNair’s death is all the more tragic because it isn’t exceptional—every year, a handful of high school and college players die of exhaustion in the heat of summer practice. Durkin isn’t exceptional either, and men like him are one of amateur football’s great dangers.

The history of sports is littered with hardass coaches who blur the line between intense discipline and bullying, and become folk heroes when success follows. Winning, even at the amateur level, is frequently everything, and too frequently the pursuit of victory inspires people to either cover up evil or excuse it altogether. Even now, Durkin has the support of certain parents and boosters.

“A few major donors have called me,” one booster told The Washington Post. “They’ve all expressed that basically DJ is getting made to hang out to dry, and that some of these so-called athletes are looking for participation trophies.”

South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp jumped into the fray over the weekend to defend Durkin, who was his defensive coordinator at Florida. Muschamp called the anonymous players and staff who spoke to ESPN “gutless” and said they had “no credibility.”

That impulse toward tribalist blinkers is troubling enough when it happens at a place like Penn State or Baylor, where the football team is successful, and that success validates a remote, football-obsessed community. But Maryland’s greatest contribution to the sport this century has been allowing the Big Ten Network to up its carriage rates by breaking into the Washington, D.C., media market. In two years with the Terps, Durkin is 10-15. He’s not Joe Paterno; he’s just some loudmouth in a windbreaker. Why are people lining up to defend this guy when he’s accused of such pointless cruelty? The answer is related to how Maryland’s football culture became so toxic in the first place.

There’s no institution in American life quite like college football. It combines the church’s comforting ritualism and community spirit with the military’s pageantry and promise of transcendence through violence and the fraternity house’s appeal to youthful excess. Like all three of those institutions, college football celebrates its top-down power structure. And like all three of those institutions, that top-down power structure is a magnet for the abuse of power.

“There’s nothing so much like a god on earth as a General on a battlefield,” wrote Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, a novel set six and a half years before the creation of college football, and by extension the college football coach. In 2018, the college football coach is even more godlike than a general.

Staying in a coach’s good graces is of paramount importance, since players are not paid and are protected by neither federal labor laws nor a union. As such, college football coaches are afforded broad power over their players. They frequently determine the class schedule and course of study for the players in their charge. They control how much an individual student-athlete plays, and under what circumstances. Those decisions could have million-dollar consequences on a player’s NFL career.

Durkin left no question as to who he favored, designating players who performed well as members of what he called the Champions Club. An easy way to get booted from the club, one player told ESPN, was to show signs of fatigue during practice.

It’s instructive that the anonymous booster quoted in the Post brought up participation trophies. Leaving aside the irony of that jab in relation to a program that’s won one conference title in the past 32 seasons, it fundamentally misunderstands what the players quoted in the report are after.

Having agency over one’s body, rather than being force-fed, isn’t a participation trophy. Nor is the expectation of playing football in as safe an environment as possible, even under a coach who denies the link between head trauma and CTE. Nor is being treated with something approaching a modicum of human dignity, which ought to go without saying, considering that the University of Maryland is a public school and not a forced-labor camp.

None of those demands are at odds with winning football, nor are hard work, physical exertion, or even the occasional stream of profanity from a coach. Any successful Division I football player has to be willing to push himself hard enough to discover and ultimately expand the limits of his physical and mental exertion. Any successful Division I football player has to work hard for his team. But successful coaches have to know when enough is enough, when “tough love” crosses a boundary into sadism. That line is different for every player, and the best coaches—the best teachers—care enough about their players to find out where that line is.

Court’s and Durkin’s alleged behavior shows that these acts of wanton cruelty were in some cases the end, rather than the means. How does force-feeding a football player candy bars help him lose weight? How does working players to exhaustion, or literally to death, “build character,” at least more than it offsets the risk of injury or game-day fatigue? How is it more productive for an athletic trainer to chase a teenager until he collapses rather than treat injuries?

“[Court will] single people out he doesn’t like, which is a common practice here,” one current Maryland player told ESPN. “Guys are run off. They’ll have them do specific finishes at the end and do harder workouts or more workouts just to make their lives miserable here.”

“They were trying to weed out players,” former Maryland safety J.T. Ventura said. “They actually called some players ‘thieves’ for being on scholarship and not being very good. During some of the workouts, there were kids who were really struggling, and Coach Court, he’d keep on yelling. He would use profanity a lot, try to push kids when they reached their limit during workouts.”

Court doesn’t sound like a man whose desire to win leads to momentary excesses. He sounds like a man who’s found one of the few places left in American society where he can totally control and degrade other people. And Durkin sounds like at best Court’s enabler, and at worst his partner in that degradation.

The observers who excuse those abuses, from fans to boosters to coaching buddies like Muschamp, merely calcify a system that enables bullies to put on a team-branded golf shirt and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year causing others to suffer.

What the Maryland football coaches and staff did to their players under Durkin’s tenure happens all over the country. In 2015, Illinois fired head coach Tim Beckman for pressuring the medical staff to downplay the severity of his players’ injuries. If Urban Meyer loses his job for covering up assistant Zach Smith’s alleged history of spousal abuse, Ohio State could replace him with one of its coordinators: Kevin Wilson, who resigned from Indiana after mistreating players, or Greg Schiano, whose iron-fisted coaching style lost him the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room. Even if Durkin himself doesn’t coach again, hundreds of men like him will.

As Court resigned from his post on Tuesday, he issued a statement that read, in part: “I am … incredibly grateful for the relationships I have built.” He should be. Those relationships got him a job that offered him the latitude to abuse his power in a manner he’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in respectable society. He’ll be lucky to find such an opportunity again.