19-year-old Maryland sophomore Jordan McNair died June 13, two weeks after he was airlifted from an offseason football workout to a local shock trauma center following an on-field collapse. Details of what caused McNair’s collapse and subsequent death were sparse and vague at the time, but a pair of ESPN reports Friday shed new light on both the circumstances of the June workout and the prevailing football culture at Maryland, and the upshot is this: some number of Maryland football staff members probably belong in prison.
A report from ESPN’s Heather Dinich says doctors have determined that McNair died of heatstroke, although no official cause of death has been publicly released. McNair was reportedly found to have a body temperature of 106 degrees, and in the weeks between his collapse and his death he received an emergency liver transplant, per an earlier report. Players were participating in 110-yard sprints that Wednesday afternoon when McNair began noticeably struggling:
“There’s no way he finished on his own,” one of the players at the workout told ESPN.
“There were multiple people that said, ‘Wow, Jordan looks fucked up, he doesn’t look all right,’” the player said. “We knew he was really exhausted, but we didn’t know he was in danger of his life.”
McNair reportedly went to the ground sometime during or after the 10th 110-yard sprint, whereupon Wes Robinson, Maryland’s head football trainer, ordered two fellow players to “drag his ass across the field!” A pair of trainers reportedly lifted McNair to his feet and, for reasons passing understanding, insisted upon walking him around:
“Jordan was obviously not in control of his body. He was flopping all around. There were two trainers on either side of him bearing a lot of weight. They interlocked their legs with his in order to keep him standing.”
“They tried to walk him for a while after he collapsed,” the second player who spoke to ESPN said. “His head, he barely had control over it. His head was limp to the point where it was back. They were walking him across the field to get him up and moving, I guess.”
When the “walk it off” approach failed to produce the desired result, which would presumably be the lowering of McNair’s body temperature, McNair was reportedly taken “by a motorized cart” to the training facility, for further treatment.
A second, more explosive ESPN report places Robinson’s “drag his ass” approach to player wellness in the context of a broader, “toxic” football culture of abuse, intimidation, and aggressive, targeted limit-testing by the team’s coaches, particularly head coach D.J. Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. Current and former players and staff say Durkin and Court use punishing, exhausting workouts as a way of pushing unwanted players out of the program, and in some cases use bizarre, unhealthy, and humiliating tactics to control players:
“They were trying to make me gain weight really, really fast,” said [one] player, who left the program. “That involved me overeating a lot, sometimes eating until I threw up. They always had me come back for extra meals. Once, I was sitting down eating with a coach, and he basically made me sit there until I threw up. He said to eat until I threw up. I was doing what they asked me to do, trying to gain the weight, but at the time, I just couldn’t gain the weight, and I guess they weren’t understanding that.”
In contrast, another lineman who was deemed overweight by coaches was reportedly “forced to watch workouts while eating candy bars as a form of humiliation.” The accounts detailed in this report paint a picture of a program whose coaches not only don’t especially care about the wellbeing of their players, but will specifically endanger their players as a kind of deranged motivational tactic. McNair’s immediate treatment by coaches after his June collapse fits into a pattern described by a player who finished his career at Maryland a year before that fateful Wednesday:
“They were trying to weed out players,” [former Maryland safety J.T. Ventura] said. “They actually called some players ‘thieves’ for being on scholarship and not being very good. During some of the workouts, there were kids who were really struggling, and Coach Court, he’d keep on yelling. He would use profanity a lot, try to push kids when they reached their limit during workouts.
“If a kid would stop or go on the ground, him and the medical staff would try to drag players up and get them to run after they’d already reached their limit. They definitely bullied us to make sure we kept on going.”
The instances of Durkin and Court forcing their players to endure humiliation and excessive physical torment pile up in the report. Coaches reportedly forced an injured player to compete in tug-of-war against his entire position group. Another player was accused of quitting on the team after he passed out and collapsed to the ground during tug-of-war. Court is alleged to have thrown small weights at players during outbursts, and once reportedly slapped a plate of food out of a player’s hands in anger. Players can lose their coveted spot in Durkin’s Champions Club not just for failing to meet expectations in workouts, but reportedly for sitting out a single run due to dizziness or light-headedness.
“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 said. “He had to go until he couldn’t.”
And then there is the question of whether coaches and training staff were so wrapped up in pushing McNair past his obvious physical limits that they may have lost crucial time before finally involving paramedics. McNair’s family attorney Bill Murphy says an hour passed between the time when McNair was reported to have suffered some sort of seizure and when 911 was called:
“Our reading of the medical records and the 911 call Maryland made to the EMT to come to the field reveal that 45 minutes into the practice, he had convulsions and a seizure on the field,” Murphy said, “and the 911 call reflects emergency personnel noted McNair had experienced a seizure.”
A 911 call recording obtained by ESPN shows that at 5:58 p.m., an unidentified man described McNair as “hyperventilating after exercising and unable to control his breath.”
Murphy describes that time gap—a medical emergency around 5 p.m. and a 911 call around 6 p.m.—as “an unexplained one-hour time period when nothing significant was done to avoid the complications of heatstroke,” and shows “an utter disregard of the health of this player.” Maryland officials so far dispute the report of the 5 p.m. collapse, and Maryland athletic director Damon Evans says trainers began “providing necessary care” as soon as they noticed McNair experiencing difficulties.
The university has reportedly placed Court, Robinson, and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall on administrative leave “pending the outcome of the external review.” Durkin reportedly sent a letter to parents ahead of the release of the two ESPN reports, acknowledging that what has been reported “may prompt questions” about his program.
One perfectly reasonable question is why Durkin, Court, and Robinson, at the very least, haven’t already been fired. Former Maryland football staff members say the current coaching environment of the program is intimidation-based; current and former players say these men routinely use intimidation and humiliation as motivational tactics; current and former players say they have a pattern of pushing teenagers past the point of complete physical exhaustion, in some cases to weed out and punish players they’ve targeted as unwanted. A pattern has been described that makes what happened to Jordan McNair a likelihood, if not an inevitability, but it says deeply troubling things about what Maryland’s athletic department deems as acceptable coaching behavior that Durkin’s tactics weren’t rejected long before now.