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Archive for August 17, 2018

Aug. 17, 2018 — A toxic culture, examined

This afternoon, the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland held a conference call to discuss the ramifications of news reports and other allegations surrounding a toxic culture in the Maryland football team, one which pushed a young student-athlete named Jordan McNair past his physical limits, dying of heatstroke during spring workouts.

The football coach, D.J. Durkin, stands accused of a lack of oversight over the people who are in charge of various aspects of the team, and he and other members of his staff have been put on administrative leave. A strength coach has been fired.

Today, the death of a football player is enough to bring out tabloid sports media, university compliance officers, and even the governance of the university.

Not so long ago, death and serious injuries in training were seen as a fact of life or even a necessary process of whittling down a group of trainees into a team. A recent telefilm, “The Book of Manning,” detailed Archie Manning’s own training as a University of Mississippi freshman in the 1960s under a head coach named Wobble Davidson.

“His job,” Manning told the Times-Picayune a few years back, “was to run a bunch of people off.”

To “run people off” means to push players sometimes beyond their physical and mental limits, to the point of quitting. The hope is that those who remain will be able to serve the varsity program after the limited freshman schedules of the time.

This being the month of August, this kind of whittling down is happening all the time, and in all sports, in all 50 states and the six non-voting U.S. territories. Maybe not with the brutality as was found a half-century ago, but you do hear stories as a sportswriter.

I once saw a field hockey program, run by one of the all-time greats, winnow down a group of 64 walkons and trialists down to less than 10 in five days. I once saw one of the most-skilled and creative players I ever saw on a high-school field last less than three days in a Division I program.

I have heard stories of torn knee ligaments, hip sockets, broken bones, and heat exhaustion. I even remember one team which was overtrained to the point where half the roster was injured by midseason and the matchday roster had just one outfield substitute. More than once in the last few years, NCAA teams have had to go into games with 11 outfielders and no goalkeeper because of injuries in that position.

Mind you, this wasn’t through physical violence or intimidation or the kind of abusive overtraining that killed Jordan McNair.

Sometimes, the attrition came from a realization on the part of the players who left that they didn’t have the time, fitness, skills, or ambition to make the varsity team. Other times, players have felt as though they were targeted for removal because of a lack of production or the perception that an enormous recruiting class would be coming in.

But at the heart of the matter when it comes to collegiate sports in America is that student-athletes are often seen by athletic programs as little more than a disposable resource with anywhere from one to four years of usable talent and sinew. A player with a severe injury is of no use whatsoever to a coach, and I have seen oft-injured players be off the coach’s radar and off the team by the start of senior year.

You might not like to hear it, but there’s a reason why they call organized workouts and combines of youth sports “meat markets.” The most organized may be the NFL Combine, but there are enough youth tournaments held around the country — some televised by sports networks or the Internet — that serve the same purpose.

The nation will take a few moments to reflect on the circumstances of the death of Jordan McNair. But coaching habits die hard, especially when you’re dealing with the livelihoods of coaches who must win to keep their jobs.

It’s a far cry from decades ago when college coaches moonlighted as instructors at their universities instead of being the highest-paid public employee in a particular state or commonwealth.