It’s been over two weeks since Maryland placed DJ Durkin on leave in the wake of reports that he fostered an abusive environment as head football coach. It’s been over two months since Jordan McNair died after collapsing at the team’s first organized workout of the summer.
ESPN’s reporting on the Terps football program described an environment where “belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common.”
“Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often,” the report says, and “Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively.”
Those allegations are the sort that seem overwhelmingly likely to cost Durkin his job. They’ve already cost strength coach Rick Court his, as the school decided paying him to go away was worth more than fighting to fire him for cause.
A number of players have pushed back, saying the ESPN report doesn’t represent their experience. In the brief time we’ve seen them, they’ve handled this controversy well.
Student-athletes Ellis McKennie and Johnny Jordan were joined by the entire Maryland Football team to share how they plan to honor the life of teammate, Jordan McNair. #JM79 pic.twitter.com/o2XpwuI3On— Maryland Football (@TerpsFootball) August 20, 2018
But they shouldn’t have to be in this situation.
You rarely hear about these kinds of conditions in pro sports. They seem to only be prevalent in college, where coaches have almost complete authority over athletes.
In 2015, Sports Illustrated spoke to Dr. Ben Tepper, an Ohio State business professor who specializes in studying abusive workplace leadership:
When he studies an industry, Tepper identifies what he calls “precursors in the environment” that make abuse more likely. “They’re all in sharp relief in college coaching,” he says. “Bosses under stress combined with targets who are weak and vulnerable and can’t fight back. Talent can give you some power, but it’s not like you can just say, ‘I’m leaving,’ because you have to sit out a year. The only protection an athlete has is to be an amazing performer.”
Pro sports conform to a boss-employee model more than college sports do. It’s easy to think of reasons why this is the case.
Players are in a situation with minimal leverage.
There are a few clear ways we can make college sports better for the athlete. Mostly, we can do this by making college sports more like pro sports.
In professional sports, the relationship between player and coach can even be the reverse of what it is in college. Keeping players happy is an actual thing the coaches care about. Hell, as far as I can see, it’s the main reason baseball managers exist.
Pro sports have money on both sides of the table. Coaches are getting it, but so are the players they supervise. The money seems to be the biggest equalizer between player and coach, but it’s not the only thing that can put the players on equal footing with coaches. Maybe this just means letting players get endorsements. However it works, get the players some damn money.
Pro players have power in a few other ways, too. They have a union that fights for their rights. And they can have a life outside of football! They might have long work weeks during the season, but they aren’t controlled by their teams the way college athletes are. I’m not saying professional sports are perfect, but they’re certainly better than college right now.
College football players, on the other hand:
- Receive cost-of-living stipends
- Have no union to fight for their rights or protect them from football-specific problems
- Have to stay academically eligible in order to play
- Often have their living arrangements controlled by the team
- Get, like, a couple weeks off per year
Here are some ways to change that.
Beyond paying the players (not gonna argue about that here), a union would help. Or at least something close to it.
The National Labor Review Board turned down Northewstern football players’ bid for a union in 2014, but there has to be a way around that. Whether it’s a special independent national committee that the team’s all sign on to honor or even (gulp) an NCAA committee comprised of players and former players, let’s get a group with one interest in mind: looking out for players.
Players are also trapped by complicated transfer rules. Right now, the NCAA mandates that most players who transfer have to sit out a season before doing so. These rules are evolving, but that evolution is slow.
Players need to be able to transfer wherever they want, whenever they want. They shouldn’t have to, in some cases, graduate in three years under the stress of a full-time, public-facing job for which they do not make a salary just for the privilege of not having to sit out a season before doing the same thing at a different school.
Enabling players to transfer whenever would require coaches to recruit their roster every season. While some people might argue that’s a bad thing, I think it’s a great reason for coaches to have to serve players instead of the other way around. If players could leave anytime, coaches would have to think harder about the environment they provide to their kids.
This is an incomplete list, but it’s a start.
And ideally, it would create an environment where players are more comfortable speaking out when something bad happens.
This is how former Terps receiver DeAndre Lane explained an incident described in ESPN’s story where Rick Court slapped a player’s food out of the player’s hands when he was late for a meeting:
The player “came late to the meeting with a food tray in his hand. [Court] was mad because they had wanted us there early in the morning to eat and then go to meetings. So I guess he showed up at 8:50 and walked in with the food instead of being there on time to eat, and that’s when he slapped it out of his hand,” he said. “I was thinking, like, that was a little over the top. But who am I to say, ‘Coach, that’s a little over the top.’”
The goal here is to create an environment where if players think something is over the top, they have the avenue to change things. Or better yet, to create an environment where coaches don’t have the kind of attitude toward players where they think that kind of behavior is appropriate.
Pay the players. Give them more than that. Put them on even footing with the people who lead them.
Player treatment in college sports might be a complicated issue, but there are some pretty clear ways we can reform it.