Maryland Was Right to Admit Failings in Treating Jordan McNair, but That Won't End the Fallout

It was refreshing to hear Maryland officials announce they had screwed up, but the final damage done from the multiple recent screw-ups in College Park—from financial payouts to suspensions, dismissals and penalties—remains to be seen.
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In these days of deflection and whataboutism, the words coming out of the mouths of Wallace Loh and Damon Evans on Tuesday afternoon sounded shocking.

From Loh, the University of Maryland president: “The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day of May the 29th—which of course subsequently led to [Jordan McNair’s] death on June 13.”

From Evans, the Maryland athletic director: “Heat illness was not properly identified or treated. Our athletic training staff did not take Jordan’s temperature and did not apply a cold-water immersion treatment.”

That quote from Loh was given at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, but he said basically the same thing to the parents of the deceased Terrapins offensive lineman on Tuesday morning. Loh and Evans met with McNair’s family to explain that while Maryland’s investigation into what happened on the day McNair was stricken by heat stroke isn’t complete, the officials have learned enough to know the school needs to accept the blame for botching the treatment of McNair.

We’ve become so accustomed to these kinds of officials spinning, obscuring and covering up that it seems stunning when they actually come out and say “We screwed up.” But that’s what Maryland’s president and AD did Tuesday. It was refreshing, even if those two only did it to save their own jobs—they aren’t out of the woods yet—in the wake of the investigation into McNair’s death and into newer allegations of a toxic culture inside Maryland’s football program.

Loh and Evans didn’t have an epiphany Tuesday morning and decide it was time to do the right thing. Their hands were forced by an ESPN report Friday from Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren that covered the mistakes made in the treatment of McNair* and also uncovered disturbing allegations of mistreatment of football players by the strength and conditioning staff at Maryland.

*These mistakes were first pointed out in an exhaustive report by James Crabtree-Hannigan in student newspaper The Diamondback on July 19.

As a result of that report, head coach D.J. Durkin, director of athletic training Steve Nordwall and head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson have all been placed on paid administrative leave. Evans said Tuesday that one football staffer was no longer employed, implying that someone had been fired. When asked who was no longer employed, Evans said it was strength coach Rick Court—the target of many of the accusations in the ESPN report. But Court wasn’t fired. According to a tweet he sent Tuesday, he resigned on Monday.

That resignation almost certainly came under pressure, but Yahoo’s Pete Thamel reported that Court received a settlement from Maryland for $315,000, which was the amount remaining on his contract. The amount, when compared to all the other dollar figures that will be thrown around in this case, provides ample explanation for the decision to pay. It simply wasn’t worth trying to fire Court for cause when Maryland could make him go away this week by writing a check.

When discussing McNair’s death, Loh and Evans seemed careful to separate the actions of the training staff from the actions of the coaching staff. This also makes sense. It isn’t the coaches’ responsibility to diagnose or treat heat stroke. Besides, it seems Loh has decided the school won’t fight McNair’s family in court. Perhaps a settlement has already been worked out, or perhaps Maryland officials have done the math on what they might have to pay out and made peace with it, but the information collected in the investigation by athletic training consultant Rod Walters has convinced Loh that Maryland has no defense in this case.

At issue now is whether Durkin will keep his job. While he isn’t responsible for diagnosing or treating medical conditions, he is responsible for the culture in his program. Court was one of Durkin’s first hires, and in most programs, the strength coach is the head coach’s chief consigliere. He is often responsible in most programs for delivering the head coach’s message to the players because NCAA rules allow strength coaches more access to players than the head coach or position coaches. If the investigation team Maryland has created finds Durkin condoned behavior Loh considers unacceptable, then Maryland could fire Durkin for cause.

The operative clause in Durkin’s contract in this case is this one:

Cause shall be defined as: (i) material misconduct, which is wrongful, immoral (meaning inconsistent with the professional standards of conduct of an intercollegiate head football coach) or unlawful conduct which adversely affects the Coach’s ability to meet the performance standards and performance commitment set out in sections 1 and 3 paragraphs of this Agreement; (ii) repetitive unprofessional or unsportsmanlike behavior (provided Coach receives written notice of the same, and a reasonable opportunity to cure the first instance); (iii) a material act of insubordination or repeated acts of insubordination (iv) failure to substantially fulfill the material duties and obligations established in this Agreement (and provided that Coach first receives written notice of the same, and a reasonable opportunity to cure); or (v) a finding by the NCAA that you have committed a major violation of any Governing Rule, whether while employed by the University or during prior employment at another NCAA institution, or a finding by the NCAA that the Program committed a major violation of any Governing Rule for which you are culpable.

“Immoral” is in the eye of the beholder, but if Loh or Evans decide they want to wipe the slate clean, this probably is the language they’d use. What’s interesting is that if none of this had happened and Durkin—who is 10–15 in two seasons at Maryland—had another season similar to his first two, he might have been fired for losing. If that happened, Maryland would owe him $4.9 million. If Maryland fires Durkin for cause, it would owe him nothing. (Though if the school tried to use the “immoral” clause, Durkin could take Maryland to court for the buyout because that term is quite subjective.)

Another question is whether Evans will keep his job. As the interim athletic director from October 2017 until late June when he was named the full-time AD, Evans would have worked closely with the football program. Loh said Maryland officials weren’t made aware of some of the worst accusations against Court until ESPN contacted them for comment before releasing its report, but Evans would have spent far more time around the program than the president did. Evans was fired as Georgia’s athletic director in 2010 following an arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. That case involved a woman who wasn’t Evans’s wife and a pair of red panties. In June, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Evans—who has worked at Maryland since 2014—was cleared after an investigation into accusations of an improper relationship with a female subordinate.

Loh, meanwhile, is tied to Evans. He chose to promote him following a search process that included interviews with Temple AD Patrick Kraft and former Kansas State and Tennessee AD John Currie. After Evans was hired as the permanent AD, Maryland wrestler Jaron Smith, a member of Maryland’s student-athlete advisory council, told The Baltimore Sun this: “I don’t feel like it’s a decision that was made—this might sound extreme—with the welfare of the student-athlete [in mind]. It seems like some of the issues we had with it weren’t necessarily addressed. … We had talked to Loh because we felt some of the decisions weren’t made in the best interest of the the student-athletes. To find out that something like this happened, it’s not only like they’re saying, ‘We don’t care.’ It’s, ‘We don’t care even more now.’”

Loh and Evans handled Tuesday as well as a president and an athletic director possibly could have. How they’ve handled the previous four months—as well as the first two years of Durkin’s tenure—remains ripe for examination.