COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan believes University of Maryland head coach DJ Durkin, athletic director Damon Evans and president Wallace Loh will be fired for mishandling an abusive culture that resulted in Jordan McNair’s death by heatstroke.
Brennan said she feels the removal of the three individuals seems likely based on her experience covering similar incidents. She was part of a panel Wednesday organized by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism that discussed media coverage in the aftermath of the McNair tragedy.
“I just think this is so bad,” Brennan said of the situation. “I think Maryland is better than this.”
The communications office for Loh had no comment on Brennan’s remarks. The Maryland athletics department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
McNair’s death and the coverage surrounding it has resulted in a dissection of the culture of Maryland’s football program. The aftermath included the resignation of strength coach Rick Court; the placement of Durkin and two athletic trainers on administrative leave; and two investigations, one of which is ongoing.
McNair, a sophomore football player, was hospitalized on May 29 after collapsing during a summer practice and died June 13. More than a month later, it was confirmed by multiple reports that McNair died of heatstroke.
James Crabtree-Hannigan, sports editor of Maryland’s campus newspaper, The Diamondback, told the panel the university’s missteps in caring for McNair had been clear since late July.
“The fact is if someone dies of heatstroke, they weren’t properly treated,” Crabtree-Hannigan said.
Results of an independent investigation presented to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents showed that McNair did not receive proper care after collapsing on the field. The university medical staff wrapped McNair in cold towels instead of giving him cold water immersion therapy, which is a common treatment for heatstroke.
It took 34 minutes before McNair was removed from the field and was placed in an ambulance 1 hour and 39 minutes after he began to suffer seizures.
On Aug. 10, ESPN released article by Heather Dinich detailing what she called a toxic culture under Durkin and spearheaded by Court. The report described a culture based on “fear and intimidation” with verbal abuse and the endorsement of bad eating habits.
Durkin was placed on administrative leave the following day. Two days later, Court announced his resignation.
Brennan said the ESPN report hit “like a ton of bricks.”
“That’s when the nation said, ‘woah, what’s going on?’” she said. “Then it became a national story. You know when you get calls from CNN Headline News that this has left sports and gone into the culture in a big way.”
When Dave Ziren, sports editor for The Nation and also on the Povich panel, first heard of McNair’s death, he said he speculated whether there were any signs of a toxic culture that could have prevented the tragedy.
“I wondered if there had been letters sent, emails sent to say…there is something with the culture of the way practices are happening here,” he said. “I wondered if there would be that tragic correlation.”
But according to Crabtree-Hannigan, the signs were there. He recalled Durkin bragging during press conferences that practices were held when it was hot because the head coach wanted his players to be prepared to play in the heat.
“When you’re talking that way and using cavalier language (the coaching staff) was using about changing the culture…it’s rather damaging,” Crabtree-Hannigan said.
And according to a Sept. 30 Washington Post story, there was also an unsigned letter hand-delivered to Loh in December of 2016 that was written to warn the university president of a “calamitous and abusive behavior in the football program.”
Loh denied hearing of any abuse at Maryland before the ESPN report was released.
Loh also denied a proposal one year before McNair’s death that would have altered the medical care for athletes at the university, according to an article published by The Washington Post in August. The plan would require athletic trainers to attend the university’s school of medicine in Baltimore and to be independent from the athletic department.
Because of the negligence from the university and abuse from the football program, Brennan believes there will a complete change of leadership at the university.
“My sense is that they will all be gone,” Brennan said. “Just from covering a lot of these things over the years and not being born yesterday, this is what this looks like.”