After Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died last June after collapsing at a workout in May, the university commissioned two separate reports into the program. Each report contained recommendations on how the university can improve its practices, and on Wednesday, an advisory board met with Maryland Athletics to check in on the progress made since their release.
Much of the meeting was focused on the safety measures put into place in accordance with those recommendations, and what was left still to be accomplished. Where the school got the most pushback from the committee were areas the school had as completed that were hard to verify without data at this point. New head football coach Mike Locksley also came to the meeting to answer any questions about where he fits into the equation and his vision for the program culture.
Dr. Rod Walters was tasked with understanding the circumstances around McNair’s death and what can be done to prevent another instance. His report had 20 recommendations pertaining to student safety. Of those 20, the university has completed 18, with two outstanding, athletic director Damon Evans said.
The second report was commissioned in August 2018 to examine the program’s culture after an ESPN report described it as “toxic.” The alleged toxicity wasn’t found in the report, but it found an athletic organizational structure that didn’t breed transparency and sowed confusion. That report made 21 recommendations, of which 12 have been implemented, Evans said.
The six-member advisory committee was chaired by Brit Kirwan, former university president and USM chancellor emeritus, and included Vernon Davis, a Maryland alumnus who still plays pro football in Washington.
What’s been done
To tackle every area of the recommendations, the athletic department broke tasks up into four quadrants—strengthening policies for safety & well-being; increasing mechanisms for feedback and review; upholding Maryland values; and promoting professional excellence. While Wednesday’s meeting touched on every facet of that plan, safety was the primary concern and where most of the meeting was spent.
In accordance with the Walters report, emergency action plans are now venue-specific and posted around the facilities. In addition to cold tubs in every facility, there are also now portable cold tubs, as well as a tarp available for those who can’t fit in a cold tub. That specific reasoning was given for why McNair wasn’t immediately immersed in a tub. The significance of 30 minutes as a necessity for treating heat related illness was also hammered home, as patients have a 100 percent survival rate when treated in that timeframe and much less success beyond it, according to the Korey Stringer Institute. Though he didn’t identify him by name, Dr. David Klossner, who oversees sports medicine, also alluded to Raymond Boone’s recent hospitalization and stated that the cold tub was his first treatment, despite it not being a heat-related illness in his case.
The school now uses Wet Bulb Globe Temperature to decide where to practice and must provide ample time to change venues. The same thermometers are used by the Armed Forces to decide what conditions are suitable. Following the commission’s recommendations, video cameras have also been implemented in every weight room.
“When something like this happens, people become a little bit more aware and people start asking the question, ‘Well, what are you guys doing?’” Evans said. “So that gives us the opportunity to share what we are doing, but also gives us the opportunity to seek input and guidance from what others have done and where there may be some expertise.”
From an organizational standpoint, the university has also looked to clarify roles. Unlike at most institutions around the country, Maryland’s strength and conditioning coaches in all sports now report to the athletic director instead of the head coaches. Those strength and conditioning coaches are now subject to a new code of conduct, brought together from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association and the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s lists of best practices.
What’s left to accomplish
Left marked uncompleted from the Walters report were two important recommendations, with one nearing completion. The school has still yet to fill out an advisory medical review board (AMRB) and is still deciding which healthcare model would be the best fit for the university’s athletics.
The AMRB will be an independent board that audits the sports medicine program every two years, led by Walters. The board hasn’t been completed but will consist of 15 members and be charged with examining whether the schools practices align with best practices around the country. The announcement for the board will be coming within two to three weeks, according to Walters and Evans. Walters said the University of Georgia was the first he’d seen implement a similar board, and he’s also been asked to helm the group forming at Notre Dame.
Maryland’s also examining its healthcare model and what would be best. The current model has team physicians in charge, but paid as employees of the athletic department. The other model being considered is termed the “medical model” and has athletic trainers and physicians employed by clinics. While much was made of the distinctions between the two, it came down to who signed the checks. Only five Power 5 schools currently employ the medical model, and four of those have a medical clinic on campus. The rest of the Power 5 uses a model similar to the one Maryland currently implements.
Where football fits in
Locksley was hired because outside of his coaching and recruiting expertise, he’s well versed with both the campus community and the DMV. He joined the group towards the tail end of the second session said his first priorities when he got on campus were to talk to the entire team and gain back the trust that had been lost by the former regime.
“What I found in my meetings with players individually was that they felt really good about their teammates,” Locksley said Wednesday. “They had created a really close bond, built off the tragedy of what happened to Jordan, but they didn’t feel the connection necessary with the coaches or the support staff. There wasn’t a lot of confidence in either of the two based on what happened to Jordan.”
Locksley once again talked about the characteristics he looked for when filling out his staff, as well as his view for the future of the program. Two other notable pieces gleaned from Locksley’s time in the meeting were his involvement in the Emergency Action Plan and his philosophy on engaging the players. Trainers are given time during the staff’s 8:30 a.m. meetings to go over the plans, the first time the training staff has been involved in such planning at any of his stops. He also appears to have a different coaching style than his predecessor.
“When I hired [my staff], a part of my hiring initiative as a coach was, number one, expressing the importance of us building trust with these players,” Locksley said. “But I also thought we had to come in with a very, very positive attitude with these guys. ... So the mission was to find ways to clearly define expectations, enforce the discipline of making sure the behaviors are consistent with the values of our program, but not in a way that’s demeaning. I stressed that with our coaches, not because it’s what happened with Jordan, but really because it’s the right thing to do.”
Outside of Locksley’s purview, but inside the university’s, the athletic department has created an anonymous real-time reporting system. The school has yet to receive a report through that system, but also envisions a day where it would go to an off-site ombudsperson to receive and help student-athletes specifically. That and other mechanisms designed to increase feedback have been created to increase the transparency within the department. Expect more practices open to media as well.
With spring football around the corner, reviewing these policies before any more football takes place was a priority. At this point the group doesn’t know when it’ll meet again, but expects more meetings to come.