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Keith Strudler: A Culture Of Fear

To be clear, Jordan McNair is not the first nor last player to die playing football, whether from heat exhaustion or collision or some other by product of the violent pastime. Every year, a handful of young athletes – most of them in high school – perish as a result of something that happened on the field of play. And while sport administrators have tried to reduce this number through a variety of preventive measures, to be clear, there is no surefire way to eliminate death from a sport as violent and taxing as American football.

That said, Jordan McNair’s passing was most likely preventable. The former University of Maryland offensive lineman collapsed during a May 29 football practice from heatstroke and died some two weeks later. Most notably in this case, Maryland’s coaching and training staff waited around an hour after McNair had seizures during drills before calling 911, nor did they do something as simple as take his temperature of give him cold towels to cool down. It’s entirely possible that had Maryland’s training staff acted differently, McNair would still be alive and preparing for his second year at the University.

That reality became far more transparent when ESPN released a scathing story last week on the state of Maryland football. According to the story’s authors after weeks of interviews with current and former players and staff members, Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin had created, as they put it, a “toxic culture,” where fear and intimidation were primary tools of motivation. This includes punitive measures such as forcing athletes to binge eat until throwing up and verbally assaulting athletes after passing out during a workout.

In light of the article, Maryland placed four members of its football staff on administrative leave, including Durkin. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court has subsequently resigned. University President Wallace Loh personally apologized to McNair’s parents and said the University accepted legal and moral authority for the missteps that led to the athlete’s death. And both Loh and athletics director Damon Evans talked about a full internal investigation and changing the nature of the football program. Mind you, this public mea culpa came only after the ESPN article, not in the several weeks after McNair’s death. And I say that with full recognition of the article’s reliance on unnamed sources and ESPN’s odd place as both a fiscal champion of big time college football and a news source that investigates its transgressions. So to allow ESPN to serve as the moral compass of college athletics is unfair.

That said, the question at hand isn’t simply what Maryland should do about its football program and its head coach. Durkin’s job rests not simply in the hands of the University’s investigation, but also in its analysis of public opinion. Such is the price of being a $4 million a year public employee that currencies in sports entertainment. The bigger question is whether Maryland’s toxic culture is an anomaly or simply some variant of the norm.

It’s fairly obvious that forcing players to binge eat to prove a point conditioning and verbally assaulting young men so they will run faster and hit harder is both abusive and outside the charter of American higher education. But before simply shaking our heads in dismay at the University of Maryland and cleaning house, it’s important to consider what coaches regularly ask elite football players to do and how they accomplish that.

Becoming bigger and stronger and more aggressive than a bunch of equally talented young athletes at another university playing for the same high stakes likely brings out the worst in motivational techniques. To be fair, a certain level of intensity is simply a part of that process; things most of us would find cruel and implausible. Finding the line between motivational and unacceptable is probably more nuanced than most of us would care to believe, particularly the vast majority of us who’ve never come close to a Division I football locker room. This is in no way a defense of what seems to be happening at the University of Maryland, and it’s even less so of their shameful treatment of Jordan McNair’s final practice session. But it should remind us that we should at least examine the overall institution of college football as much as the individual people within.

Of course, that would lead to something of a black hole of issues around aggression, masculinity, labor, and on and on. Which is why it’s probably easier to fire a few coaches, change some rules at Maryland, and forge ahead to opening kickoff. And also why, to be clear, Jordan McNair is neither the first, nor the last football player to die in vain.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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