Photo by Evan Chvotkin for The Sports Capitol

At Maryland, a scandal echoes the past, demands accountability


AT TSC HEADQUARTERS — It took me right back to 1986. Maryland held a hastily called press conference in the wake of the death of one of its student-athletes. Thirty-two years ago, as a student at the University of Maryland and the Sports Director at the college radio station WMUC, I was there when then-head basketball coach Lefty Driesell poured out his emotions to the assembled media and a watching nation. His star player, Len Bias, died from a cocaine overdose the previous night, just two nights after being drafted by the Boston Celtics with the second overall pick. On May 29th this year, 19-year-old Maryland footballer Jordan McNair suffered from heat stroke during a practice; 13 days later he was dead.

These situations have two similarities. A student-athlete died while attending the University of Maryland and the aftermath will be devastating.

In the Bias case, the coach, athletic director, Dick Dull, resigned and several staff members were fired. They were jettisoned because of the horrible decision Bias made to use and ultimately abuse cocaine.

As I write this, what we know about the McNair situation is this was through no fault of the young man himself. This was the fault, by their admission, of the staff of the Maryland football team. A medical and training staff that not only didn’t recognize the stress that McNair was going through in the late-May practice, but, one that ignored the signs. They didn’t mistreat him, they didn’t treat him, at all, for at least an hour, according to some of his teammates.

It sickens to me to think of what McNair must have went through. I don’t know how anyone on that staff can justify any of their actions. The fact that the administration, school president Dr. Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans only came forward after a damning ESPN article about the culture surrounding the football team under head coach D.J. Durkin was released, leads me to believe this story won’t find completion until all those who knew something are gone. Obviously, McNair’s parents will never have closure.

Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, Jordan’s father and mother, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” how they entrusted their son to Durkin.

“‘Hey, I’m giving my child to you. Keep him safe,’” McNair said. “They did anything but that. So of course he should be fired.”

I don’t know how Durkin or anyone on that staff can return to the program. How would they recruit? How would they go into a kid’s house and say, “Come play for me”? Other schools won’t have to negatively recruit because this story is ugly and tragic enough.

That brings me back to 1986. A dark hole was created in the wake of Bias’ death. It took years to climb out of. Former basketball star Tony Massenburg, a freshman on that team when Bias died, told me the other day the rest of the country looked at he and his teammates as if they were all doing drugs.

“We were viewed as thugs,” Massenburg said. He then said it was the toughest thing he’s been through.

Maryland made a quick-trigger hire of Bob Wade, a legendary coach at Baltimore’s Dunbar High, to replace Driesell. It was an ill-advised attempt to calm the waters. Two seasons later, the hiring of future Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams was a stroke of luck and genius, but that just repaired damage to the basketball program. The school’s reputation suffered, too. That will take place this time as well, I’m afraid.  

If you’re a Maryland alum, you’re embarrassed. You’re ashamed. I am. More details will come in about the culture throughout the Maryland football program during the weeks ahead. A culture which, no doubt in my mind, had a hand in how Jordan McNair was treated that fateful day during a hot afternoon practice. The repercussions will be felt within the program and the university for years to come. The McNair family will feel it for the rest of time. Ask yourselves, why? What lesson was that coaching staff trying to teach to Jordan McNair that day? There isn’t a proper answer.

Follow the award-winning broadcaster on Twitter @MrChickSports.

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