An Alert Ignored?

University of Maryland's president was told about alleged abuse in the football program almost two years ago -- well before an athlete died. New reports include coaches working players until they vomited, mocking them and forcing them to watch grisly videos of animal deaths.

October 9, 2018
 
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University of Maryland, College Park, athletics director Damon Evans (left) with President Wallace Loh

When the graphic accusations against the University of Maryland, College Park, football program emerged -- as ESPN reported, that players were berated and pushed to the point of vomiting or passing out -- Maryland's president, Wallace Loh, denied he knew anything about the allegations.

Pleading ignorance still didn’t cast the institution in a particularly positive light considering that offensive lineman Jordan McNair had just died of heatstroke (an investigation subsequently revealed College Park athletics staffers had failed to treat McNair properly at a practice in May -- a fatal error).

But new accounts reveal that institution officials were warned of the alleged ongoing abuse in the program nearly two years ago, and some commentators have questioned whether Loh and others can keep their jobs after this revelation.

The Washington Post first reported that the mother of a former player had an anonymous warning hand-delivered and emailed to Loh’s office, to then athletics director Kevin Anderson and others in December 2016, long before Maryland football made headlines.

The letter said that head football coach DJ Durkin was "orchestrating valorous suffering on the football athletes," the Post reported. The most recent allegations against the program include that players were frequently belittled and told they were a "waste of space" and that they were sometimes physically abused, with one coach shoving a player while he was vomiting.

University spokeswoman Katie Lawson said that the university had no record of a hand-delivered message. However, Loh did receive the emailed version of the warning, which he had a staff member forward to Anderson, according to a statement from College Park. Loh did not remember the email, the statement said.

Members of the president’s cabinet are expected to address such tips and information, and the university’s practice is not to respond to anonymous emails, according to the statement.

But what Anderson did with the information in the email remains unknown. Lawson deferred a question about how he handled the email to an independent commission set up to investigate the football program.

The University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents took control of that investigation away from College Park officials in August. It’s ongoing, led by an eight-person commission, and the results are expected to be released soon to the regents and to the public perhaps as early as the board's next meeting, Oct. 19. Durkin -- the once revered head coach brought in nearly three years ago and the subject of many of the abuse allegations -- remains on leave.

Whether certain administrators were aware of purported mistreatment could have significant bearing in any lawsuits later -- and whether Loh and others potentially would remain in their positions, depending on the outcome of the football probe.

“For the university system, for the Maryland taxpayer, for the public that is looking for how this athletic program is being run and supervised, this is just an incredible blow to the idea that Maryland is doing what they need to be doing,” said Dionne L. Koller, professor of law and director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore.

The optics are particularly poor for Loh, and Koller questioned whether he and Durkin would keep their jobs -- she said she believes Durkin at least should be fired because as head coach, he sets the tone in the program that allowed an athlete to die.

Loh has already said the university has accepted full responsibility for the death of McNair, the football player who suffered a heatstroke. Another regent investigation found McNair was not given a cold-immersion bath, the standard treatment for heat-related illness, and that he was not transported to the hospital until nearly two hours after first suffering symptoms. His parents have indicated they will sue, tentatively for a total of $30 million in damages.

Koller said she believes the McNair case would never head to trial and that the institution has likely already accepted it will need to settle for a high-dollar amount. She said the email will probably drive up the value on an already all-but-certain settlement.

“There is a certain amount of leeway we give on tracking down every single gripe in higher education,” Koller said. “But we saw there was enough that was pointing to problems in this athletic department and in this program that I think it does call into question whether President Loh has done enough to investigate and get control over the athletic department.”

This would not be the first incident in which college officials have failed to act on warnings from parents and the public. Only after the 2011 hazing-related death of Robert Champion, the 26-year-old head drum major at Florida A&M University, did the university fire its marching band director, suspend the band and crack down on illicit activities in student clubs. But records obtained by the Associated Press reveal that even as early as 2007, parents were expressing concerns with top administrators about the program. A parent who spoke to the AP said then president James Ammons, who stepped down after the scandal, spoke with him over the phone in 2007 and reassured him that FAMU had taken a hard line against hazing. Police investigations into the band reached back at least to 2006.

As for Maryland, the Post article details horrific new allegations against Durkin and other coaching staff.

Players told the Post that in 2016, one athlete had worked out so hard he was vomiting into a trash can. Rick Court, a strength and conditioning coach, was speaking while the player was sick and grew angry he was being interrupted. He then slammed the player into a refrigerator, tossed the trash can across the room and forced the player to clean up the mess, the Post reported. Court resigned from College Park in August following the ESPN report.

Court also allegedly poured Rice Krispies treats and other snacks over a player who was on a weight-loss plan as a way of “fat-shaming him,” one player told the Post.

Court has not given media interviews and did not respond to the Post but released a statement when he resigned saying he wanted to allow the team "to heal."

Injured players were sometimes sequestered in an area called “the Pit,” a gravel area close to the practice fields, according to the Post. Durkin referred to those players as a “waste of life,” though there is some debate among players whether he was joking, the Post reported.

Players were also shown gory videos during meals and in the training room -- they would feature loud music and violent images, such as animals killing one another and pulling each other part, or zombies ripping out intestines, one athlete said.

In a statement, Maryland athletics director Damon Evans said if the new allegations are true, they are “unacceptable.” Evans noted in his statement that Durkin is on leave, as are several other athletic trainers, and that the department has launched a new “online platform” so athletes can report any concerns.

“We will not tolerate any behavior that is detrimental to the mental or physical well-being of our student-athletes. When the commission completes its charge, we will act decisively and take all actions necessary to ensure the safety of our student-athletes,” Evans’s statement reads in part.

In a statement, Loh encouraged anyone with information to contact the commission.

“I have committed as president that we will take the appropriate actions based on the conclusions of the investigation,” Loh said in his statement. “These allegations are upsetting and underline the importance of the independent review to ensure that all allegations are fully examined.”

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