Column: Wild and Wylie

To find the similarities between football and warfare, look no further than the terminology fans use. Elite quarterbacks have a “cannon” for an arm. Games are determined at the line of scrimmage, the “war in the trenches.”

There is one key difference. No football player is supposed to die on the field. If that ever happens, the head coach must be held accountable. 

Football requires athletes to push their physical limits. But, especially in college, coaches are entrusted to protect young men.

Coaches can make no guarantees of safety during games, but what they can affect is the culture during practices. Coaches must know when to push limits and when caution is necessary.

On May 29, 2018, offensive lineman Jordan McNair, 19, collapsed on the practice field at the University of Maryland. According to an ESPN report, McNair started cramping during drills and he remained on the field for 34 minutes before collapsing from heatstroke. 

The trainers took over an hour to call 911 after he first began showing symptoms. He wasn’t taken to the hospital for another 30 minutes after that. When McNair finally reached the hospital, his internal body temperature was measured at 106 degrees.

On June 13, McNair died. Several coaches, including Head Coach DJ Durkin, were placed on administrative leave while the university investigated the tragedy. They published the results of their investigation.

The school found that Rick Court, the Terrapins’ strength coach, fostered a culture of bullying and abuse between players and coaches at practice. He forced injured players to compete in tug-of-war against healthy athletes and used food as a punishment, a former player told ESPN. Court reportedly once made a lineman eat candy bars while watching practice to shame him for not losing weight. 

The university learned that its athletic trainers were unprepared and ill-equipped to help McNair. They used improper treatment methods and delayed before calling the hospital.

Despite this, the Board of Regents recommended that DJ Durkin be reinstated as head coach of Maryland football Tuesday, Oct. 30. The board found that he was not directly to blame for McNair’s death, in part because he was a first-time head coach who was not adequately trained for his job.

The school argued that a man who had previously coached under Urban Myer and Jim Harbaugh, two of the most prominent coaches in college football, was not properly trained to be a head coach.

There is no excuse for Durkin not being held responsible for the death of McNair. Court was hired by Durkin personally. Head coaches are responsible for the management of the team. Durkin must take ownership for what happened.

After protests by the student government association, the school president announced he had fired Durkin Thursday, Nov. 1, just two days after he was reinstated. The right decision was eventually made, but for the wrong reason. Rather than being proactive in firing Durkin, or even showing the courage to stick with the decision of the Board of Regents, the school allowed public opinion and protest to determine their former coach’s fate. 

Head football coaches have countless responsibilities. They cannot micromanage every coach and player.

But they must be responsible for recognizing when a coach is using unsafe practices. They must be responsible for trainers being prepared to deal with medical issues.

With safety-conscious policies and honest conversations with players, coaches and staff, a head coach can create a safe atmosphere for players. DJ Durkin failed his duty to Jordan McNair. Others should learn from his poor example.

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