Maryland apologizes for the heatstroke death of football player Jordan McNair

Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans. (Photo for the Washington Post by Astrid Riecken)
Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans. (Photo for the Washington Post by Astrid Riecken)
Published August 14 2018
Updated August 14 2018

University of Maryland president Wallace Loh and the school’s athletic director, Damon Evans, met privately with the family of Jordan McNair and apologized Tuesday for the school’s role in the young football player’s June death.

Loh spoke at a news conference in College Park immediately afterward, outlining major mistakes made by athletic staff members and said the university "accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on the fateful workout day of May 29." Loh said he has received progress reports from an ongoing investigation surrounding the circumstances of McNair’s death, "and based upon what we know at this time, even though the final report is not completed, I said to the family, ‘The university owes you an apology. You entrusted Jordan to our care and he is never returning home again.’"

McNair, a 19-year old offensive lineman, suffered exertional heatstroke at a team workout on May 29 and died 15 days later. The death has drawn scrutiny to College Park where some ex-players and staff members have said the football program operates under a culture of abuse and bullying. As a result of recent news reports, the school placed four people on administrative leave, including the team’s head coach, DJ Durkin. Evans said at Tuesday’s news conference that one of those men — Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach — is no longer employed by the university.

Evans became emotional as he recounted the Baltimore meeting with McNair’s parents, Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, on Tuesday afternoon. "I have looked into the eyes of grieving mother and father, and there is simply nothing good enough," he said.

Loh and Evans both acknowledged major mistakes were made in the treatment that McNair received on May 29 and that the team’s athletic trainers never properly diagnosed the player with a heat-related illness. Evans said McNair "did not receive appropriate medical care" that day, "and mistakes were made by some of our athletic training personnel."

"We have looked at the preliminary observations that were given to me and others," Loh said, "and some of our policies and protocols do not conform to best practices. Some of the actions of our athletic training staff - not the coaching staff — our athletic training staff, they basically misdiagnosed the situation. No vital signs were taken, other safeguard actions that should have been taken were not. For me, that was enough to say, I need to come and personally apologize."

Evans said the team’s athletic trainers did not take McNair’s temperature and the player never received cold-water immersion treatment, which experts say could have lowered the young man’s body temperature to safer levels.

Evans said the school has already instituted new safeguards for all athletic practices.

"We have changed how we practice and also how we train our staff. We have specifically changed how we practice in the heat," including increasing breaks.

Durkin, the team’s third-year head coach, was placed on administrative leave Saturday. He was not present at Tuesday’s news conference, and Evans would no speculate on when or if Durkin might return to the team.

The school has contracted with Walters Inc., an athletic training consulting firm, and a review isn’t expect to conclude before Sept. 15.

While that review is focused on safety policies and procedures, Loh announced some details Tuesday of a second external probe that will examine the culture within the football program. Loh said he’s assembling a national commission of experts to look into the recent allegations of abusive behavior.

"We will do everything possible that the situation that Jordan McNair found himself in will never happen again," Loh said.

Evans said he has not witnessed any of the behavior described in media reports, but "make no mistake we will not tolerate any behavior from any employee within Maryland athletics that is detrimental to physical or mental well-being."

School administrators and athletic department officials have been under fire in recent days as new details surrounding McNair’s death have emerged and former players and staff members have described untoward, bullying behavior in news reports during Durkin’s tenure as head coach. Many of the most serious allegations center on Court, with former players alleging he often relied on humiliation and fear in his interactions with the team. "The severity of those allegations was significant," Evans said of Court.

Durkin was present at the May 29 workout, though the drills were run by Court and his staff. Hospital medical records suggest that McNair still had a body temperature measuring 106 degrees nearly 40 minutes after a 911 call was placed to report his condition.

Hospital medical personnel were able to lower his temperature to a safer 102 degrees in 12 minutes. Experts in heatstroke say if his temperature would have been lowered within 30 minutes of suffering heatstroke, McNair likely would have survived.

The hospital records say McNair initially showed symptoms of heatstroke 45 minutes into the team’s workout, which began at 4:15 p.m. — more than 90 minutes before his body temperature was successfully lowered at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park.

Maryland officials have strongly disputed that timeline, though they did not reveal any new details on the timing of events during Tuesday’s news conference.

"At no point before or during the external review has a student-athlete, athletic trainer or coach reported a seizure occurring at 5 p.m.," the school previously said in a statement.