By Ken Reed
Vince Lombardi has been dead for 48 years. Yet, his treat-‘em-like-dogs coaching style is very much alive in today’s sports world.
The University of Maryland football program is but the latest example of tyrannical coaches going way beyond legitimate coaching techniques. It’s another example of what I call Lombardi Syndrome (militaristic, controlling, swearing, degrading and abusive).
During a May workout, Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair exhibited “extreme exhaustion” during and after physically and emotionally abusive conditioning drills, according to reports. After a long delay, McNair was eventually taken to a hospital where his temperature remained 106 degrees, more than an hour after he initially began hyperventilating, collapsed on the field, and had a seizure. McNair died in June from heatstroke, according to an early medical report.
“Our preliminary investigation reveals there is an unexplained one-hour time period when nothing significant was done to avoid the complications of heatstroke,” said McNair family attorney Billy Murphy.
“Although there is some evidence they allegedly tried to cool him down, he should have been iced immediately. He presented at the hospital with a temperature of 106, which means he was not cooled down.
“We’re very concerned about the unexplained one hour between the time of the seizure and hyperventilating that was observed by a coach, and what happened in that remaining hour before the EMT people were actually called. This points to an utter disregard of the health of this player, and we are extraordinarily concerned that the coaches did not react appropriately to his injury.”
McNair reportedly had to be dragged by two teammates to finish the final sprint in the conditioning drill. According to an ESPN story, multiple sources said that after McNair finished, Wes Robinson, Maryland’s longtime head football trainer, yelled, “Drag his ass across the field!”
One player at the workout told ESPN:
“Jordan was obviously not in control of his body. He was flopping all around. There were two trainers on either side of him bearing a lot of weight. They interlocked their legs with his in order to keep him standing.”
At a press conference this week, Maryland officials accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes leading to McNair’s death. The strength and conditioning coach in charge of the workout in which McNair collapsed has resigned. Maryland president Wallace Loh acknowledged that McNair’s death could have been prevented. Those are positive steps, but they aren’t enough. The entire program needs to be blown up and rebuilt on a foundation of humanistic coaching.
An investigative report on the Maryland football program described a “toxic” culture under head coach D.J. Durkin, one based on fear, intimidation, belittling, humiliation and embarrassment. Durkin was at the workout in which McNair collapsed.
“Sports when it’s done right, is so beautiful,” says Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance. “And when it’s not, it’s so ugly.”
The University of Maryland is conducting an in-depth investigation into the workout in question as well as the entire football program. Based on what we know so far, Durkin will undoubtedly be fired.
However, the bigger issue here for our society as a whole is not what happens to the Maryland football program, it is how do we expel abusive tyrants like Durkin from SportsWorld for good?
It’s shameful that so many coaches of this ilk are still active in 2018, from the youth level to the pros.
The great author James Michener, who wrote Sports in America, said coaches in the United States get away with forms of discipline that simply aren’t tolerated in any other activity.
Why are they tolerated in sports?
Individually and collectively, we need to decide to stand up and remove tyrannical and abusive coaches across the world of sports.
If we do, athletes in the future will have a much greater chance to avoid the sad fate of Jordan McNair.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project. He is the author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports and How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan.
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Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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