Povich Center Hosts Panel on McNair Coverage

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Povich Center Hosts Panel on McNair Coverage
Oct 4, 2018

By Kevin Brown and Alex Murphy

Some of the most well-known journalists in the country descended on the Philip Merrill College of Journalism Oct. 3 to analyze the coverage surrounding the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair earlier this year.

It was a packed house inside Knight Hall’s Eaton Theater for the nearly two-hour discussion, hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. The more than 60 guests in attendance were given a behind-the-scenes look into the minds of the journalists who have been covering the tragedy and the ensuing fallout.

The panel included a star-studded cast of reporters: co-moderator Kevin Blackistone, Christine Brennan of USA Today, James Crabtree-Hannigan of The Diamondback, Rick Maese of The Washington Post, David Steele of Sporting News and Dave Zirin of The Nation.

McNair, an offensive lineman for the Terps, collapsed during an organized team workout May 29, then was transported to a local hospital, where he died June 13.

McNair’s story became national news about two months after he died. On Aug. 10, ESPN’s Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren published a scathing report detailing a “toxic culture” surrounding the Maryland football program, fed by head coach DJ Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. Court has since resigned, and Durkin was put on administrative leave.

Brennan drew agreement from the crowd when pointing out how sad it was that it took the death of a football player to uncover the alleged “toxic culture.”

Crabtree-Hannigan, on the other hand, pointed out that there has been a significant number of college football player deaths –as recently as a Kent State death in June 2017 – which have been reported without any sort of aftermath or accountability.

“The number of schools where a death of a football player has had little reporting done on it is remarkable,” Crabtree-Hannigan said.

The ESPN report detailed a Maryland football culture filled with routine shame and humiliation of its players. The report has caused many former players and parents to come forward and speak to reporters about their experiences. It has also led to two separate investigations into McNair’s death and the alleged toxic culture.

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh has already said the school takes full “moral and legal responsibility” for failing to prevent McNair’s death to heatstroke – an illness that has a reported 100-percent prevention success rate when treated appropriately.

While several boosters have come out in defense of Durkin, as reported by The Diamondback, their account has been met with several tales of abuse from the coaching staff, as reported by The Post.

“I knew … Heather [Dinich]’s first story was the first flood of information that came out, that had to be the PG version,” Zirin said. “I knew it was going to get worse, and I think that’s what we saw with the investigative articles that followed.”

Moderator George Solomon asked Crabtree-Hannigan and Maese whether they noticed any signs of abuse in the program during their past experience covering the team.

“I think there were times you can tell,” said Crabtree-Hannigan. “There were a lot of times both Durkin and Court would say those kinds of things publicly.”

Crabtree-Hannigan said Durkin bragged about practicing in extreme heat conditions, and Maese wondered how much of that contributed to McNair’s death.

“That is what the Board of Regents is going to have to decide,” Maese said. “How much of this reported culture issue contributed to the death of Jordan McNair?”

Brennan pondered whether the university will blame McNair’s death solely on the training staff, which could in turn save Durkin’s job. She added that she thinks Durkin, Loh and athletic director Damon Evans will all eventually be fired.

Members of the audience asked the panelist if the questions surrounding the football program were out of line, suggesting that all major college football programs operate in a similar way.

“It’s a cop-out to say this happens everywhere,” Maese said, adding that instead people should be asking why this type of training is happening.

Maese talked about the power dynamic in sports, saying players don’t have the power, the coaches do. And while players often refer to their teams as their family, Zirin noted the concept of “family is often used to silence whistleblowers instead of support them,” which often prevents anyone from speaking out.

Many questions surrounding McNair’s death and the football program remain unanswered. An investigation into the program, led by a four-person commission that includes former federal judges and experienced attorneys, remains ongoing. The results of that investigation could go a long way to determining the fate of Durkin, as well as Loh and Evans.

Until then, the panelists, members of the audience and the entire College Park campus will continue to wait.

“Anytime a student dies on campus it’s traumatic for everyone at the school — especially the players,” Steele said.

For more coverage of the panel discussion, “Crisis at Maryland: Covering A Tragedy & The Fallout,” visit the Philip Merrill College website.

Homepage image: (from left to right) Kevin Blackistone, James Crabtree-Hannigan, Rick Maese, Christine Brennan, David Steele, Dave Zirin. (Photo Credit: Alex Pyles/Merrill College)

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