D.J. Durkin and the polite fiction of amateur football
On May 29, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, began to experience symptoms of heatstroke during practice. After another half an hour of conditioning, during which one of the Terrapins' athletic trainers is reported to have shouted "Drag his ass across the field!" in response to McNair's struggles with the 110-yard sprint drills, he was finally removed from the field by coaching staff, who gave him cold towels. They reportedly did not take his temperature or check his vital signs. More than an hour later McNair finally left the practice facility in an ambulance. Upon arriving at a hospital, McNair was found to have a fever of 106 degrees. Two weeks later, he was dead.
Here is one of the easiest decisions in the world. If you are a college football coach and a player dies on your watch, not of a freakish accident or a horrific injury but from an avoidable and easily treatable condition, should you resign? McNair's head coach, D.J. Durkin, did not think so, not immediately after McNair's death was announced, not after ESPN reported on the bizarre and at times disturbing culture of the Terrapins football program, not even after a follow-up report commissioned by the university confirmed many — though not all — of ESPN's findings. The president of the university, Wallace Loh, agreed and on Wednesday announced that while Durkin's suspension would be lifted, Loh himself would be resigning instead, effective June 2019. It took the intervention of Larry Hogan, Maryland's popular Republican governor, to force the school's hand on Wednesday evening.
So with a $5.1 million gift basket courtesy of Maryland taxpayers and our ludicrous system of enormous guaranteed coaching contracts, Durkin was finally fired. It has been reported that students had walked out of recent meetings with him, and after players were told at a conference that he had been dismissed, not a single question was asked. The Terrapins are having a good season under their interim coach, Matt Canada, upsetting a highly ranked Texas team in their second week. They are now tied with Penn State and Michigan State in the Big 10 East division, something no one would have predicted back in August. Before games, players kneel in memory of McNair.
I wonder whether Durkin now regrets not having resigned earlier. Of course he did not want to see one of his players die. But theirs was not an employer-employee relationship. McNair was, as the university's PRese reminded us over and over again, a "scholar-athlete," not part of a professional sports franchise. Durkin was responsible for more than his performance on the football field. He did not cause McNair's death, but as his coach, he was ultimately responsible for it and for the psychotic antics of Rick Court, his conditioning coach, who among other things is reported to have forced players to eat until they vomited and thrown weights and other objects at them.
It is not clear yet what the extent of the fallout from Durkin's firing will be. Will he be able to secure another coaching position? Probably, somewhere. But the circumstances surrounding McNair's death and the handling of it by the athletic department and the university will lead, I think inevitably, to questions that many fans of college football would prefer to ignore. How much longer can we maintain — to ourselves and the world — the polite fiction that these young men are gentlemen amateurs, "scholar-athletes" who are playing for glory (and perhaps experience) rather than de facto minor-league athletes? It is clear from the Maryland report that the view of the coaching staff was that players should be expected to work in gruesome conditions in exchange for such favors as the creation of a lax "therapeutic" marijuana policy (this didn't happen) and in one case the alleged hiring of counsel for two players accused of sexual assault. Is this really more noble than just giving them a salary?
Meanwhile, the liberalization of the NCAA's rules governing student transfers and the creation of what is, in all but name, a free agent pool for college football players hoping to find better programs, is making the hoary old clichés about doing this for your school, for the people of your state, for "character" or some other abstract noun, sound ridiculous. No one actually believes this anymore.
What does this mean? Should the NCAA give in and allow players to be compensated, either directly by their universities or from third parties — endorsement contracts, likeness rights in video games, and so on? My instinct is to respond that this will make a mockery of the college game and reduce it to a low-budget NFL, with all of the league's shortcomings and none of its upsides.
But on balance I think this would be wrong. The mockery has already been made. The question now is what form justice takes for the most poorly treated professional athletes in the United States. While it is possible that some talented high-school players will forego college and opt to join one of the new professional leagues set to debut next year, I think it is more likely that college football itself will become the official minor league, with (no doubt modestly) paid players, Heisman runners-up with their own lines of Nikes, NCAA Football on PlayStation, and, I hope, some kind of players' union. It nullifies the spirit of college football, but it's probably the right thing.
It's a shame that it takes death for some of us to admit this.