The Mess at Maryland Is Another Grim Indictment of College Sports's Institutions

The death of Jordan McNair is just the latest college sports story to open up a chamber of horrors for all to see beneath the initial headline.
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Nothing comes out right these days. A little while back, they thought they found the tomb of Alexander the Great, but it turned out just to be some schmo from antiquity who had liquefied over the millennia and we now have the phrase “sarcophagus juice” to toss around as a punchline. Then, they found the world’s oldest wheel of cheese, only to discover that it was shot through with brucellosis, which makes parts of the body swell that are the parts of the body nobody wants to have swell. There’s a horrible undertow to almost everything these days, a steady, foul flow of journalistic sarcophagus juice that seems to be running under the surface of every news story and beneath all the institutions that reporters cover. These include sports stories, which have had a particularly rough year of it. It is easy to come to the conclusion that, in the heart of everything, something has gone awfully weird and creepy.

Just last weekend, at the national gymnastics championships in Boston, USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport and an organization with a public image somewhere below that enjoyed by brucellosis, declined to invite Olympic hero Aly Raisman, who is suing USA Gymnastics for allowing Dr. Larry Nassar to run wild, and who lives a short ride on the MBTA’s Green Line from TD Garden. (Raisman attended as a guest of TD Bank.) That story, of course, stank of the undercurrents of the Nassar story, which isn’t remotely over yet. (Two more women—Kyla Ross and Madison Kociar—came forward last week with their stories of abuse.) Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio is spoken of as the next Speaker of the House, but his way may be blocked because he can’t disentangle himself from a grotesque scandal involving the sexual abuse of wrestlers at Ohio State when Jordan was a coach there. Across campus in Columbus, Urban Meyer is awaiting a decision from an independent investigation into how he handled an alleged incident of domestic violence in 2015 involving one of his assistant coaches. Both of these stories reeked of the unresolved issues that have plagued college and professional sports for decades, but which have intensified in recent years because of increased media and law enforcement attention to these kinds of crimes, as well as the courage of the victims who have become empowered to come forth with their stories.

And then there’s the University of Maryland, where the sunken river of foulness running under all our institutions exploded to the surface and, in doing so, has led more than one reasonable person—like, say, me—to wonder if the country wouldn’t be better off if the Maryland football program were crated up and shipped off to Alpha Centauri, if they’d have it there, which I doubt. A 19-year-old freshman named Jordan McNair, a member of the university’s football team, died last May, and he died of abuse. It was a different kind of abuse than the ones suffered by Larry Nassar’s victims, or the Ohio State wrestlers, or the wife of Urban Meyer’s former assistant coach. But it was abuse nonetheless. Jordan McNair died because his humanity was secondary to the egos of the members of the Maryland coaching staff. He died because he was physically abused in the course of what was supposed to be training for the upcoming season. He was a victim of both workplace violence and of domestic abuse.

It was workplace violence of the classic sort, the kind of thing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was developed to prevent, no different in kind from the slow death of asbestos workers or the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Under head coach D.J. Durkin, the Maryland football program was quite literally a sweatshop. On May 29, Jordan McNair collapsed after running a series of 110-yard sprints. The coaching and training staffs did not follow the appropriate steps to cool him down despite that fact that McNair had quite obviously slipped into heatstroke, and they delayed calling 911 for an unconscionable length of time. By the time he got to the hospital, Jordan McNair had a body temperature of 106, and he needed an emergency liver transplant. Then, he died.

In 2011, in his epic jeremiad against college sports that ran in The Atlantic, author and historian Taylor Branch traced the curious history of the concept of the “student-athlete.” It was developed to insulate colleges and universities from having to pay workers’ compensation claims to their virtual employees who played football. And while McNair’s family rightfully is suing the eyebrows off the University of Maryland, it was this shield behind which Durkin and his staff built their sweatshop.

But what happened to Jordan McNair is domestic violence, too. College sports teams are families, or so say the people who make the real money off the backs of people like him. Every college coach of every sport that I have ever met has made the point that, when they go into the homes of high-school athletes, they promise sincerely to look after the recruit “as if he were my own son.” You hear endlessly about how coaches work to safeguard “the most precious thing” parents own—their child. If that is the case, and coaches swear up and down that it is, then what happened to Jordan McNair at Maryland was child abuse, plain and simple. The details are as horrific as any report of toddlers with “glove burns” or babies shaken to death. McNair was worked until he collapsed, and there seems to have been a strong immediate reaction that the real problem was that McNair was malingering or, at best, “soft.” ESPN reported that other players heard a Maryland trainer yell, “Drag his ass across the field,” and that this was after McNair already had collapsed.

The death of Jordan McNair opened up a chamber of horrors for all to see. ESPN’s subsequent reporting has produced tales of almost inhuman abuse under the guise of coaching, and a reckless disregard for the health of the athletes in the name of “coaching.” Players forced to eat until they vomited because coaches thought they were fat. Verbal abuse more suited to the SERE training given to Navy Seals than to young football players in a college weight room. The Maryland football family was an abusive family, like so many others around the country. The essential dynamic is there for all to see. Jordan McNair is the kid who gets beaten to death in the third-floor walk-up after which everybody stands back and wonders how it all happened. They seemed like such a nice family.

And that’s the deepest river of the sarcophagus juice, the liquefied dead things, that courses through the institutions of college sports these days. One day, everybody thinks you’re Alexander the Great and the next day, you’re just another pile of human Jell-O. You can feel the corruption flowing beneath your feet these days. Everything is weird and creepy.