DJ Durkin still sits on leave as Maryland football’s season presses on, but we’ll get some clarity on that soon.
Over two months after university president Wallace Loh announced a school investigation into the Maryland football program and five months after Jordan McNair collapsed following a team workout, the results of that investigation will finally become public.
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents took over responsibility for the investigation from Loh in August, and has announced that the investigation’s results will be released sometime before and Oct. 30. “Any initial decisions and/or recommendations from the board” will be announced then too.
The Board of Regents has now met twice about the results of this investigation, and will meet about it again on Thursday.
“We have said from the beginning that, if true, the allegations related to the culture of the football program at the University of Maryland, College Park are unacceptable,” Board of Regents Chair James Brady said in a statement on Oct. 17. “We have also said we are determined to get all the facts possible before acting.
“While the final stage of that process begins on October 19th, members of the board will need appropriate time to study the findings, ask follow-up questions, come to conclusions, and consider any potential outcomes,” Brady added. “As public servants, we have an obligation to take the time necessary to get this right. Once the board has had the time it needs to review the findings, the information will be shared with people of Maryland in a fully transparent fashion.”
This investigation is separate from the one conducted by Rod Walters into Maryland’s training and conditioning protocols. The Board released the results of that investigation on Sept. 21 (you can find them here), but punted on making any big decisions before the broader investigation finished. The Washington Post has also mentioned a separate state attorney general investigation, but there aren’t any specifics about that out right now.
Who is on the committee that investigate Maryland football?
The committee is made up of eight people:
- Ben Legg, retired Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for Maryland.
- Alex Williams, retired Judge, U.S. District Court for Maryland and former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney.
- Charlie Scheeler, senior counsel at Baltimore law firm DLA Piper. Former prosecutor for U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maryland. Was lead counsel in the investigation of steroid use in Major League Baseball. He monitored Penn State’s compliance with its agreement with the NCAA and the Big Ten in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (In the findings from the Walters investigation, this eight-person panel was called The Scheeler Commission.)
- Frederick M. Azar, M.D., Chief of Staff at Campbell Clinic Orthopaedics, and Professor and Director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship program in the University of Tennessee‐Campbell Clinic Department of Orthopaedic Surgery & Biomedical Engineering.
- Bonnie Bernstein, ESPN and ABC sports reporter, former University of Maryland gymnast.
- Former Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., who Maryland notes was “captain of thePrinceton University football team.”
- Tom McMillen, former United States Congressman, former member of the USM Board of Regents, former Maryalnd All-American and Academic All-American basketball player. He currently leads a lobbying group that represents all Division I athletic directors.
- Doug Williams, Redskins Senior Vice President of Player Personnel, former NFL quarterback, and former head football coach at Morehouse College and Grambling State University.
What exactly are they investigating?
Their task is to investigate the various allegations laid out in media reports that Durkin, strength coach Rick Court and possibly other members of Maryland’s staff used coaching methods and motivational tactics that crossed the line. This is defined by ESPN and the investigative commission as a “culture” problem, which, yes, is true, but that beats around the bush a little and is hard to prove. They’re investigating, or at least should be investigating, whether Durkin or anyone else at Maryland has treated players improperly.
-There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when [strength coach Rick] Court was angry.
-The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
-Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
-Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.
“They would make a point to openly humiliate and embarrass you to the players around you and the coaches,” one ex-player said. “They also had video cameras. . . . Even if you were throwing up in a trash can, that would sort of be the highlight of their film, getting the camera as close as they could up to your face and videotaping you.”
Two former players told of a 2016 weight-room incident in which a player was vomiting in a trash can following a workout. Court was speaking at the time and grew upset that he was interrupted. Court pushed the player into a refrigerator, screamed at him and tossed the trash can across the room. He then forced the player to clean the mess, the players said.
Kimberly Daniels, the mother of twins who were recruited to Maryland by Durkin and Co. but transferred after the 2017 season, said one of her sons was targeted by the staff in an effort to force him out of the program and free up a scholarship spot, and that her sons said things like, “Then things started happening, and they’d tell me: ‘Mom, you don’t know these people. You don’t know what they do.’ ”
The mom of one player sent a letter to the university president’s office and to the coaching staff in 2016 containing the following passage: “Are any of you aware or do you even care about the number of student athletes suffering from severe emotional distress because of the abusive actions of Coach Durkin? His actions are extreme and outrageous; intentional and reckless, and the sole cause of the emotional distress.”
Former Maryland wideout DeAndre Lane told The Post the medical staff and trainer Wes Robinson, who’s currently on administrative leave, pushed him to return from injuries when he was not yet healthy enough to play.
This investigation is of course at least tangentially related to Jordan McNair’s death, as that was the event that set off the scrutiny of Maryland’s program. But this commission appears to have been investigating larger patterns of behavior rather than the specific events at the workout on May 29 that led to McNair’s death. The Walters investigation dealt more specifically with McNair’s death, and the school will use both investigations when making final personnel decisions.
According to multiple people familiar with the process, Durkin was interviewed by investigators on the morning of Aug. 22, and they were particularly keen on questioning Durkin about his alleged use of food to demean players, possible verbal abuse and his handling of injuries.
The commission’s review is expected to also look at the actions of other prominent coaches and staff members, including Damon Evans, who was promoted to athletic director less than two weeks after McNair’s death. Loh, too, could find himself scrutinized by one or both of the external probes. He nixed a plan recommended by the school’s athletic director to fundamentally change the way athletes receive medical treatment and athletic training less than a year before McNair died.
The Walters report also mentioned one instance where a parent was concerned with the “pressure” her son experienced while on the team, and one instance where a student trainer expressed concern over how injuries were handled.
Durkin’s job hangs in the balance, and so could the jobs of other football and strength staff members, or even Loh or Evans.
What do we know about the commission’s methods?
The Washington Post story from Sept. 30 contained a tidbit that applies here:
According to players interviewed by The Post, the investigators followed a familiar pattern in their questioning, asking players how they felt about Durkin going on leave, walking through incidents cited in media reports, inquiring about whether they were treated fairly and if they have any complaints about their time in College Park.
The Post’s report indicates the commission had not seen the letter sent by the mother of one player back in 2016. While Kimberly Daniels indicated to The Post that her sons had not been contacted for the investigation, the commission produced emails showing that it had emailed an attorney representing Daniels, but said it had not heard back.
All three parents said they have reached out to and have spoken to at least one representative of the commission tasked with investigating the culture of the football program under Durkin. Two said they felt they were taken seriously, at least initially, when they raised concerns and relayed anecdotes of abuse, both emotional and physical.
But in recent weeks, they have been told things that chip away at their belief that the commission is truly trying to get to the bottom of what really happened. Some players and parents of players who have left the program due to abuse have not been interviewed or even approached, they said.
“They asked me about the different situations, what was in the media, events that took place or not, what my playing time was like,” a former Maryland player told ESPN. “They did a pretty good job. Some questions they worded poorly, like, ‘Did you ever formally complain about playing football?’ And I was like, ‘Have you ever complained about your job?’”
A parent of a current player said players received detailed questionnaires that asked them for statements about Durkin’s program and their experience.
Why has this taken so long?
The best explanation we’ve seen publicly is this tidbit from The Washington Post’s Rick Maese:
People familiar with the commission’s investigation say there are several reasons it has lasted this long. Among them: the scope of the review was vast and somewhat nebulous; commission members tried to reach as many of the Maryland players who competed under Durkin as possible, a timely undertaking; and as investigators have discovered new information, they have had to re-interview some people they met with early in the process.
Has the commission tipped its hand as to what its conclusions might be?
Not exactly, but nuggets from a few reports point to some people close to the investigation believing, at least at one point, that it would not turn up evidence that would result in Durkin’s exit.
Even before the Sept. 21 release of a report focused on the circumstances around McNair’s death composed by consulting firm Walters Inc., there was a growing sentiment among many close to the program that the eight-person commission will find that allegations of an unhealthy and abusive culture were overblown.
The parents of three players on the team told The Athletic in a story published Oct. 16 that they “fear that Durkin will be reinstated.”
That’s all we’ve heard publicly. What’s happening behind the scenes is still a mystery, but we’ll finally get some answers soon.
This story was initially published on Oct. 1, and has been updated.