The Maryland football program is a mess.
That’s the simplest takeaway from the 192-page investigative report that a school-appointed commission released Thursday. The commission had been investigating the culture inside head coach DJ Durkin’s program, following the June death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and a subsequent ESPN report that panned the program for a “toxic” culture.
The report reaches an odd conclusion, that “the Maryland football team did not have a ‘toxic culture,’” but did have a culture “where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
The investigators don’t think players fearing to speak out on issues about their own safety qualifies as “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.” While that’s among the report’s most eye-popping conclusions, the document also offers a detailed look into how the program’s been run.
The report doesn’t confirm some of the worst charges against the program, but it still paints an ugly picture of the program Durkin has led, as well as the strength and conditioning program led by Rick Court, who resigned after ESPN’s report came out.
You can read the full report here. Below, we’ve picked out critical information from it.
1. The investigation details several unconventional motivational tactics and punishments, administered by both Durkin and Court.
Examples, in the investigators’ telling, include:
- Players were made to watch graphic videos while eating:
Multiple players anonymously complain that the coaching staff would subject teams during meal time to disturbing videos. According to Gus Little, this included videos of serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, and bloody scenes with animals eating animals. Another player says that there were videos of rams and bucks running at each other at full speed. Mr. Durkin maintains that horror movies were sometimes shown at breakfast to motivate and entertain players.
- A player was removed from a team meeting for smiling. The report states there was a “preexisting rift” between the player and Durkin, who thought the player wasn’t paying attention.
- As a form of punishment, Court forced players to exercise on a stair climber with a PVC pipe across their shoulders for an hour. The investigation’s medical expert concluded this was “an appropriate exercise technique.”
- Court also allegedly slapped food out of a player’s hands when he was told the player didn’t finish eating before a team meeting:
Mr. Court subsequently snatched the box out of the player’s hand, tossed it against the wall, and addressed the entire group on the importance of punctuality, saying “I was trying to set the tone for what that day was going to be.” Others say Mr. Court knocked the food out of the player’s hand onto the ground.
Court stated that players were told to eat before the meeting.
- Multiple players told investigators that Court gave overweight players candy bars or snacks while others were working out:
Accounts vary as to whether Mr. Court placed the candy bars on the player’s lap, dropped them at his feet, hurled them at the player, or poured a bin of them on the player and then forced the player to eat them while the rest of the team worked out. Mr. Court says he threw a bag of the candy at the player’s feet. One player recalls that Mr. Court called the player “fat.”
- ESPN’s report claimed a player was forced to eat until he vomited. A coach confirmed a player did vomit during a team meal, but it was unclear whether the player was forced to eat, or if he was simply eating and vomited.
- But, speaking of vomit:
During the workout session, the player in question had gotten sick and vomited into the trash can. Some sources, including former players Michal (“Gus”) Little and E.J. Donahue, alleged that Mr. Court then shoved the player against a refrigerator in the gym and forced him to clean up his own vomit from the trash can, which Mr. Court had thrown across the weight room. Others state that Mr. Court just threw the can against the wall, without touching the player, and the spilled vomit was then cleaned by a staff member.
- Court crossed a line of abusive speech toward the players, whether he believes he did or not.
This included challenging a player’s manhood and hurling homophobic slurs (which Mr. Court denies but was recounted by many). Additionally, Mr. Court would attempt to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit, all behavior unacceptable by any reasonable standard. These actions failed the student-athletes he claimed to serve.
2. The whole Maryland athletic department has been deeply dysfunctional.
The report describes palace intrigue between current athletic director Damon Evans and his predecessor, Kevin Anderson. Anderson thinks Evans tried to overthrow him and take his job. Athletic department employees didn’t have a clear reporting structure, including staffers who worked for the football program itself, and specifically Court.
There were inconsistent org charts with administrators, Court, and Durkin disagreeing about who Court reported to.
The confusion over to whom Mr. Court reported is a striking illustration of the athletics department’s disarray.
Maryland ultimately fired Anderson under odd circumstances. (More on that shortly.) Evans was the interim AD after that, including when McNair collapsed at a workout and died. University president Wallace Loh has since promoted Evans to permanent AD.
The report ultimately put responsibility on the university for the dysfunction in the athletic department.
3. Durkin’s relationship with Maryland’s leadership is so bad that it seems highly unlikely he could ever coach there again.
The report contains many examples of Durkin wanting things the athletic department would not give him and having poor relations with its leaders. That includes an attempt to get a football team-only psychologist for players and to transform the school’s policy on players and marijuana to be less “punitive” and more “therapeutic.”
The commission said Durkin, in an interview, “expressed frustration with the level of support, and the lack of communication, he received from athletics.” It also said Durkin “found the Maryland bureaucracy to be more challenging than what he had experienced at other schools,” and suggests he wasn’t given a chance to tell “his side of the story” when Maryland suspended him following ESPN’s reporting in August.
It has always seemed farfetched that Durkin would ever return to the Maryland sideline. His buyout is about $5 million, and barring a Maryland attempt to fire him for cause, the university will have to pay him that to walk away, or try for a settlement.
4. When SB Nation asked for Maryland’s strength coach’s performance reviews in August, the school curiously wouldn’t release them. It turns out that’s because the strength coach was barely supervised at all.
An August public records request filed by SB Nation sought Court’s contract information, in addition to any performance reviews and personnel files. Maryland cited a state statute in not releasing Court’s reviews and personnel files. Well, those did not exist:
... Rick Court was effectively accountable to no one, and the training staff went relatively unsupervised for extended periods due, in part, to a rift between the athletics director (“AD”) and his deputy, which permeated the entire department. There was no formal mechanism to assess coaching performance. There was not a single performance review for Mr. Court during his tenure at Maryland.
5. We now know for sure why Anderson, Maryland’s former AD, went on a sham “sabbatical” just after the start of the 2017 football season. And it’s bad.
In the fall of 2017, reports emerged that Maryland was firing Anderson, the athletic director who’d hired Durkin. The timing was surprising, with the football team off to a decent start that included a season-opening win at Texas.
Anderson, it turns out, had gone outside university protocol and used the athletic department to retain counsel for two football players who had been accused of sexual misconduct. Their accuser was another Maryland student.
Dr. Loh found it disturbing that Mr. Anderson provided financial resources to the accused, while the complainant, who was also a student affiliated with the athletics department, was not provided with any assistance.
That’s a fireable offense, so why didn’t Maryland just fire Anderson then? The school put him on a six-month sabbatical, for two reasons:
- Powerful Maryland people worried that appearing to discipline Anderson right then would lead to speculation that Maryland’s cherished basketball program had gotten caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. That story had just broken into the national spotlight at the time. (Of course, Maryland has gotten caught up in that federal investigation anyway.)
- The “grace period” helped Anderson get another job without looking like he’d been fired.
All of that led to months of uncertainty and instability within the athletic department, which likely didn’t do much good for the well-being of anyone who worked or played in it.
6. Maryland players had varying views about the program they played in.
The report uses the lack of consensus about some of the allegations to back itself up, especially where it declines to call the team’s culture “toxic.”
There was no uniform rejection of Maryland’s coaching staff, and no uniform rejection of the treatment of players, by any of the groups of stakeholders interviewed by this Commission. The lone, clear consistency was that Mr. Court’s level of profanity was often excessive and personal in nature. In light of our conclusion that Maryland’s football culture was not “toxic,” we do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.
7. But, on the whole, Maryland players don’t seem happy.
The investigative team polled Maryland players about how they felt about different elements of their program, including their overall experience. Judging by their responses on a 0.5-to-5 scale, Maryland players are less satisfied with their program than other surveyed players. Views are especially negative toward Court, Durkin, and “culture/values:”
8. A consistent theme alleged by those interviewed: Durkin doesn’t treat players well if they’re not starters or important on-field contributors.
As one player puts it:
“If you’re not a superstar he doesn’t really care about you. You are just a number on the roster. He needs to learn how to control his staff and become a decent human being. He should not be our head coach.”
One player’s parents say Court once prohibited a player from sitting on a heated bench during a November game, saying that bench was only for starters, and that Durkin backed that view:
The parents contended that their son deserved a scholarship (he was a walk-on) and that he should be given “a legitimate opportunity to compete for playing time.” They said that Mr. Court (and two other coaches, including Mr. Durkin) had subjected their son to physical and verbal abuse.
The ball is now back in Maryland’s court as to what to do next.
The university system now has the report, and it still has a head coach, president, and AD whose statuses are in flux. What happens now is up to Maryland’s board regents.