Maryland football head coach D.J. Durkin.
Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty)

Frothing, militaristic football coaching has always relied on the premise that in order to win, players need to be trained and disciplined to the point of breaking down, so that their temperament and habits can be rebuilt in line with the goals and ambitions of the team. It’s a gnarly, brutal way of doing business, and—judged with the benefit of healthy distance—is pretty inappropriate for what is, despite all its overblown mythologizing, a game. The goals and ambitions of the team are, in the end, to win some games and then a trophy.

It’s possible to find something noble, though, in the idea of grueling work and rigid discipline being deployed as a way of uniting all members of a team behind a single purpose, even one as goofy as scoring more touchdowns than the opposition. Physical trial is exhilarating, and perseverance is a trait worth learning, even under harsh conditions, and if parents can get behind the idea of their children achieving self-improvement via the rigorous conditioning of an intense football program, so be it.

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But that’s not what has been described as taking place at the University of Maryland. Current and former players and current and former staff members describe an environment where brutal physical punishment and merciless humiliation tactics were deployed to intimidate and weed out weaker players, for the purposes of chasing them out of the program. That’s not conditioning—conditioning is working something to bring it into the appropriate state for its intended use. In athletic conditioning, players are made to run (for example) so that their bodies will become better at running, and for longer periods of time. Forcing a player to run until his body collapses, and then forcing him to continue running after that point, serves no legitimate conditioning purpose. It is cruel and dangerous macho posturing, a dominance ritual.

Discipline is the deployment of punishment in order to teach someone to obey rules. In athletics, discipline might take the shape of forcing players to run extra sprints because some number of them were late for practice. Maryland’s coaches were not enforcing discipline when they reportedly forced an injured player to compete in tug-of-war against his entire position group. There is no legitimate disciplinary purpose to this action; it exists to humiliate the player and position him unfairly in some sort of vile Survival Of The Fittest demonstration. A player cannot be trained to obey a rule that says “do not get injured or we will fuck you up.” All he can be made to do is suffer, so that the coaches can hold him up as an example to his teammates of what happens when you are weak. Forcing the teammates of an injured player to compete against him in his debilitated state is not a form of accountability. It’s sadism.

Forcing a player to eat candy bars while his teammates work out is a humiliating and counterproductive tactic stolen, I shit you not, from the Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman playbook of terrorizing leadership:

These tactics were not deployed according to any sane and defensible interpretation of the concept of “coaching.” What Durkin is accused of doing is not coaching. The purpose of these coaching tactics, we are generally told, is to position the team to win football games, but that’s not quite right. Plenty of actual football instructing is presumably also taking place—players are being given playbooks and plays and assignments and scouting reports and game-day adjustments—having to do with actually winning football games. It’s fair to describe that part of their relationship to their coaches as “coaching.” The purpose of this other stuff—the degradation and domination and bullying—is about selecting out and eliminating all but the sturdiest and most bloodthirsty football psychos on the team.

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And it can be said to have worked, according to its own grim and disgusting logic. It got rid of Jordan McNair, whose 19-year-old body failed during an arbitrary and arbitrarily punishing “conditioning” exercise, months removed from the start of the football season. When Wes Robinson reportedly shouted “drag his ass across the field” about a teenager who was right then dying from football, he wasn’t expressing any special contempt for McNair. He was expressing a certain kind of bloodthirsty football psycho’s general and open contempt for players whose best isn’t good enough. The job should be coaching, instruction, stewardship, but instead it’s purification by elimination. They should throw all these motherfuckers in prison.