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On ESPN’s reports regarding Jordan McNair’s death and Maryland football’s ‘toxic’ culture

The reports are critical of DJ Durkin, the strength & conditioning staff and more.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Maryland football program was the subject of multiple reports Friday, centered around the recent death of a player during a spring workout.

First, ESPN’s Heather Dinich reported that the death of Terps offensive lineman Jordan McNair was caused by heatstroke. Her story included several firsthand accounts of the May 29 workout—after which McNair was hospitalized—and all information indicated his situation was handled poorly by team staff. Around the same time, the university announced in a statement that unnamed members of the athletics staff had been placed on administrative leave.

Then, Dinich and two other ESPN reporters—Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren—released a detailed story regarding a “toxic culture” within the football program. ESPN interviewed two current players, multiple former players and staffers, and several sources within the program over the last several weeks, and here’s how the revelations were summarized.

- 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 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.

It’s unclear to what extent these reports and the staffers being placed on leave are related; Maryland is also waiting on the results of an external investigation conducted by Walters, Inc., which is expected to be completed by Sept. 15.

ESPN followed up with a report Saturday that strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall were the employees placed on leave.

Court—who was DJ Durkin’s first hire after being named head coach in December 2015—was portrayed in the most damning light in Friday’s second report. A former staffer told ESPN he “would use any language he deemed appropriate to get a response or move your needle.” A current player described Court as “just a ball of testosterone all the time” and said he’s “the guy people hate, and that way Durkin doesn’t have to take the blow for it.”

Robinson is one of the few staff members who precedes Durkin, having been at Maryland since 2006. Those interviewed seemed to agree his tenor had changed since Durkin was hired; one ex-staffer said he was “trying to become someone he really wasn’t.” Multiple sources told ESPN that after McNair finished the last of 10, 110-yard sprints at the May workout while two other players held him up, Robinson yelled, “Drag his ass across the field!”

Nordwall was not mentioned by name in either of the first two ESPN reports. He oversees all athletic training at Maryland in his role, which he’s held since 2014.

Of course, all of this comes back to Durkin. He’s come off as fiery (and intense) in media and public appearances, but the behind-the-scenes truth appears much uglier. While Durkin admitted to creating an environment that weeded out some players left over from Randy Edsall’s tenure, former Maryland defensive back J.T. Ventura told ESPN the staff “actually called some players ‘thieves’ for being on scholarship and not being very good.” There wasn’t much attrition at first, but over 20 players have left the program with eligibility remaining during Durkin’s tenure, and only four of the assistant coaches from his first season are still on staff.

Athletic director Damon Evans will take plenty of heat, as well. He was named interim AD in October after Kevin Anderson went on a six-month “sabbatical,” and the interim tag was removed in late June. One current player described “a lack of action” in university leadership’s response to McNair’s death. Less than two weeks after the 19-year-old lineman died, Evans was named Maryland’s full-time athletic director.

Maryland officials did not make any of the staff mentioned above or University president Wallace Loh available to ESPN. The football team has not opened any fall practices to local media. The Big Ten Network was in town Friday to as the latest stop in a bus tour to all 14 schools in the conference, but the investigation was never mentioned in its on-site coverage.

There’s a line between an ultracompetitive program and a toxic one; these reports suggest that line had been crossed.

“It shows a cultural problem that Jordan knew that if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood, he would be targeted,” one of the current players told ESPN. “He had to go until he couldn’t.”

Late Friday night and Saturday morning, though, a handful of current and former players took to social media to seemingly respond to the allegations.

This story is a long way from over. It’ll probably linger past Maryland’s season opener against Texas in three weeks. We will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.