Press Box: Lessons from Jordan McNair’s legacy

Photo by Erin Edgerton.

The administrative culture of the football program at The University of Maryland, College Park has come under fire since the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June.

McNair collapsed during an outdoor workout May 29. The teenager’s body temperature reached 106 degrees after running a set of 110-yard sprints. He passed away in the hospital two weeks later as a result of heat exhaustion suffered during the workout.

ESPN reported several players and people close to the program described a “toxic culture” under head coach D.J. Durkin. The complaints depicted a “coaching environment based on fear and intimidation” exemplified by the “belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players.”

Examples included a player being forced to eat candy bars while watching teammates workout because coaches wanted him to lose weight, a player being forced to overeat to the point of vomiting and routine verbal abuse designed to mock players’ masculinity when they were unable to complete a drill or lift a weight.

In one instance, a player was belittled after passing out during a drill.

Durkin has been on administrative leave since McNair’s death. Jordan’s father, Martin McNair, said on Good Morning America that Durkin “shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid.”

It’s no secret toxic masculinity permeates college football programs across the country — see the ongoing investigation into alleged domestic violence by an assistant coach at The Ohio State University. Although the severity of the situation at Maryland is indeed abnormal, McNair’s death should serve as a reality check for not just football programs, but athletic departments throughout the U.S.

These coaches exist around the country in myriad athletic institutions — this is much more than a football problem. I had one such coach myself playing baseball in high school. He was no D.J. Durkin, but verbal abuse and belittlement was a norm that caused a handful of my friends to quit our junior and senior years after the coach in question took over the program.

I persisted because I loved the game and the comradery that came along with it too much to let his bullshit make me walk away. Perhaps I should have.

In middle school, one of my soccer coaches was fired for telling a player to “take the skirt off” after shying away from a header. Instead of using the moment to teach the player how to properly head a ball, the coach attacked his masculinity. Again, I played through the controversy despite multiple teammates boycotting the program. Today, I’m left wondering if I failed my teammates and school in that regard.

Players, parents, boosters, fans and the many coaches who are cherished mentors around the country — don’t stand for this like myself and many at Maryland did. Call it out. When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to stand up to the machismo underlying the issue. Know that you have resources around you. Players have the autonomy to refuse to comply with this sort of behavior.  

The University of Maryland Senate voted Sept. 5 to have its executive committee review the results of an investigation by the Board of Regents into how the culture under Durkin may have contributed to McNair’s death.

The Diamondback, the independent student newspaper at UMD, spoke to senate chair-elect Pamela Lanford last week. Lanford proposed the motion to review the investigation.

“When we lose a student, any students, I personally feel that loss, I feel that grief, which I realize is nothing in comparison to the parents and the family of the student we have lost,” Lanford said. “I want to understand how we got here, and how we move forward.”

The nationwide athletic community must strive to make sure Jordan McNair did not die in vain. We must ask ourselves — as Maryland does now — how did we get here, and how do we move forward?

Because coaches like D.J. Durkin are working with somebody’s kid right now.       

Zach Joachim Executive Editor


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