Sport and Society–Maryland in Crisis

Editor’s Note: “Sport in American History” is excited to cross-post Richard C. Crepeau’s “Sport and Society” column. This post was originally published on November 8, 2018. A full archive of his Crepeau’s columns can be found by clicking here.

Do you ever wonder if there is a bottom to the depths of decay and corruption within the American University? A former colleague of mine at the University of Central Florida often told me that the bottom will never be reached because there is no bottom.

I was reminded of his words again these past few weeks as the University of Maryland imploded under the weight of its football program. Yet one more time, an American university has proven incapable of rational and ethical conduct when dealing with a crisis in its intercollegiate athletic department.

The immediate cause of the crisis was the death of a football player, Jordan McNair, two weeks after suffering heat stroke during spring football practice. There are routine procedures for treatment of heat stroke and they are clearly stated within guidelines provided by the NCAA to training staffs. In this case the procedures were not followed, and no one called 911 until an hour after McNair was suffering. The University of Maryland accepted responsibility for the death of McNair, something not always done in similar cases.

In August, a report by ESPN charged that the culture of the football program at Maryland was “toxic.” This prompted the Board of Regents to appoint a commission to investigate the program. In the end, the Commission, although it rejected the term “toxic” reported that the athletic department did not have well defined lines of responsibility, and the football coach, D.J. Durkin, was in over his head, whatever that might mean.

The ESPN investigative report concluded that the Maryland Strength and Conditioning Coach, Rick Count, was abusive toward players. Count resigned shortly after the ESPN revelations.  The Regents Commission agreed that Count’s behavior was “inappropriate,” and included “challenging a player’s manhood and hurling homophobic slurs (which Mr. Court denies but was recounted by many)” and “throwing food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit” at players, while other players watched.

All of this came to a head late last week when the Board met to discuss the commission report and met with University President Wallace Loh, Coach Durkin, and Damon Evans, the Athletic Director. The Board decided to reinstate Durkin and ordered President Loh to do so. Loh called a press conference to announce the Board’s decision, did not mention the coach by name, and then announced that he was resigning as President effective in June of next year.

The reaction to all of this was immediate and loud. The Board was under fire from all quarters on and off campus, among donors and politicians, many alumni, faculty and staff, and students including some members of the football team. Most aggrieved were the parents of Jordan McNair. Others were critical of President Loh for not defying the Board.

One day later President Loh decided to go against the wishes of the majority on the Board and he fired Coach Durkin. Within twenty-four hours the Chairman of the Board of Regents resigned, a new Chair was elected, who then issued an apology to McNair’s parents and acknowledged the mistake by the Board in reinstating the coach.  The University will pay the $5.53M balance on Durkin’s $12.5M contract. A few days ago the head athletic trainer and the head football trainer were fired for their negligence in failing to treat Jordan McNair.

How long will it take for the University of Maryland to recover from this self-inflicted disaster? The cynical and likely view, is that recovery depends on how long it takes to produce a winning football team.

What is the explanation for what happened at Maryland and in fact at several other places across the country, where the tail has come to wag the dog?

In the Maryland case, the trouble seems to have begun six years ago when the university cut its athletic ties with the Atlantic Coast Conference and joined the Big Ten. In no small part, this was a decision based on conference television fees and public exposure for the football program. As a result, Maryland found it necessary to turn its focus away from basketball and pour its athletic budget into football.

So Maryland joined the college football arms race. The result has been a doubling of the deficit in the program. It takes a lot of money to compete in the Big Ten, and Maryland was not equipped to move to that level of spending, but spend it did. The salaries in the football program rose sharply, as did the spending on most everything else related to football.

When this sort of thing happens, other lesser sports get squeezed and their ability to compete at the highest level is diminished. The football program dominates the athletic department, and the football coach and the athletic director become a quasi-independent force on campus. In this atmosphere accusations of misconduct or abuse are pushed aside; scandals involving player off-field behavior are covered up; and sometimes, as in this case, there is finally a crisis serious enough to provoke an investigation of the program. In some cases reform follows. In other cases the university authorities contain the scandal, treating it as a public relations problem.

The Maryland case is not an anomaly; it is typical. These patterns of action and inaction have been replicated at universities across the country.

Football rules! Any issue, no matter how small, is not allowed to inhibit the drive for cash and glory on the gridiron.

For an ugly affirmation of this state of affairs I recommend Joshua Hunt’s new book, University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don’t have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

Copyright 2018 by Richard C. Crepeau

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