George Solomon: Evaluating Jordan McNair Coverage

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George Solomon: Evaluating Jordan McNair Coverage
Sep 4, 2018

Not since the tragic death of Len Bias to a cocaine overdose in 1986 has the University of Maryland and its athletic department been under such close media scrutiny. But that’s been the case since the death of Jordan McNair, 19, a sophomore offensive tackle who collapsed during an offseason workout in College Park, Md., May 29 and died of heat stroke in Baltimore June 13.

The coverage of McNair’s death has been extensive — with emphasis on the one-hour between McNair’s collapsing to the turf, how the Maryland training staff attended to him and his transport to a local hospital, then to a trauma unit in Baltimore, where he died nearly two weeks later.

The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and the campus newspaper Diamondback set their sights on the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death, but it took an explosive Aug. 10 story by ESPN’s college football writer Heather Dinich on the football culture at Maryland that set in motion an examination of the athletic program and university had not seen in College Park since the death of Bias. Those events in the summer of 1986 led to the departure of Hall of Fame basketball coach Lefty Driesell, athletic director Dick Dull and eventually chancellor John B. Slaughter. (The successful football coach, Bobby Ross, left after the 1986 season for reasons related to the Bias aftermath).

Dinich’s story on ESPN reported “a toxic coaching culture” under head coach DJ Durkin who, Dinich wrote, operated in an environment of “fear and intimidation,” with strength and conditioning coach Rick Court singled out for abusive behavior.

One day after Dinich’s story appeared, athletic director Damon Evans, with the support of university president Wallace Loh, announced Durkin had been placed on administrative leave; Court was gone; and head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall were also put on administrative leave.

The responsibility of preparing the football team for its Sept. 1 opener against Texas fell to offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who had never been a college head coach. With promises to be more transparent, Canada, in the days leading up to the first game, refused to name a starting quarterback. So much for transparency. Canada started Kasim Hill over Tyrrell Pigrome and the Terrapins, a big underdog to the Longhorns, won 34-29 at FedEx Field.

All the while, the state’s board of regents for the university system has the task of overseeing separate investigative panels examining the death of McNair and the football culture at Maryland.

Additionally, it was reported that Loh rejected former athletic director Kevin Anderson’s proposal to move the responsibility of the athletic department’s medical care to the university’s medical school in Baltimore, similar to what some other schools in the Big Ten do and the NCAA recommends.

Shortly after that story broke in The Post and Sun came the news that Anderson had covered the legal fees of two former Maryland football players charged with sexual assault without first going through university protocols. The Alabama lawyer, Don Jackson, who defended the players, said he dealt with Durkin – not Anderson. Nevertheless, Anderson’s alleged interaction with the lawyer on behalf of the two players may have been a key factor to his departure from College Park last year. The lawyer subsequently called the Maryland athletic department a “dysfunctional viper pit” on a Facebook posting.

These developments have placed Loh and Evans, as well as Durkin, in the cross-hairs of some Maryland alumni and supporters unhappy over what’s taken place throughout the past three months. The disgruntled alumni includes former Maryland quarterback and CBS broadcaster Boomer Esiason, a member of the university’s athletic Hall of Fame and frequent critic of the university and athletic department. Esiason said on his national radio show there has been a “shameful lack of leadership” since the McNair tragedy. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, president of the Maryland State Senate, told The Sun’s Don Markus he felt the athletic department has been “adrift” since McNair’s death and said Loh was “hopelessly outgunned” in a PR battle with the McNair family attorney Billy Murphy Jr.

From the time McNair collapsed at the offseason workout May 29 until his death June 13, The Sun appeared to have done the most reporting on the story. That remained the case after McNair died (he was from the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, Md., and went to high school in Baltimore), although The Post and Diamondback reported on the story to a lesser degree.

But after Dinich’s story on the culture of Maryland’s football program broke Aug. 10 – followed by Loh’s quick action on Durkin and other staffers — The Sun and Post went “all hands on deck” with their coverage, as did the same newspapers 32 years ago, when Bias died. The Diamondback, even with school on break, held its own, with good reporting by James Crabtree-Hannigan, Christine Condon and Andy Kostka.

The Post’s Rick Maese, Roman Stubbs, Jacob Bogage, Emily Giambalvo and Sarah Larimer did good work, as did columnists Barry Svrluga and Jerry Brewer. Svrluga was most critical of university and athletic department’s leadership. Even The Post’s Metro section weighed in, reporting that Maryland’s State’s Attorney was “watching” the events in College Park and talking to arriving students starting the new semester.

The Sun’s Markus had some backup, as well, but for the most part carried the day himself against all comers. His well-reported story that appeared on The Sun’s website Aug. 31 was extremely solid; clearly one of the best pieces on the situation. Sun columnist Peter Schmuck complimented Loh and Evans in an August 14 column for going to McNair’s parents and admitting the university’s responsibility for his death. Schmuck also called for Evans to join Durkin on administrative leave.

The Diamondback’s reporting team deserves praise for its work — with student Joey Marcellino chirping in with a letter to the newspaper’s website suggesting this was a perfect time to disband football at Maryland. Joey, Joey, Joey.

Even The Wall Street Journal and New York Times added context with pieces on the growing importance of strength coaches (many of them quite aggressive) to football programs.

In seeking my own context and counsel, I turned to a former colleague and sports fan, the recently retired Merrill College journalism professor Carl Sessions Stepp, who wrote:

“I think it’s inexcusable if they weren’t prepared to diagnose and treat Jordan McNair’s condition, and I think it’s odious if they were bullying and humiliating players and taunting them with crude sexist insults. Imagine if we did that in the classroom or anywhere else. I think we need a lot more information about the depth and levels of these abuses. Were they everyday practices or are we hearing about a few exceptional cases? Was it a toxic culture across the board? Did top coaches know about it, sanction it, overlook it? We should encourage thorough and tough reporting, now and in the future. We should demand openness and transparency from the athletic department and campus, including open practices. Athletes should be allowed, in fact encouraged, to be available and open to reporters and the rest of campus. A lot of reforms are called for, and getting better information, on a regular basis, is high on the list.”

Amen.

Photo Credit for homepage image: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

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