My Kid Would Never Play For DJ Durkin

His life is worth more than generating billions of dollars in sneaker and TV deals for universities and helping egomaniacal coaches get rich.

The DJ Durkin saga and the Jordan McNair tragedy has shed a negative light on the culture of coaching football at the college level and how universities value the lives of athletes, particularly young black men.

The NCAA has long been accused of creating a predatorial, exploitive and restrictive environment for student-athletes. Jordan McNair’s death and Durkin’s subsequent suspension, reinstatement and subsequent firing, created a firestorm of emotion and reactions from across the sports landscape.

It also made parents, who are raising young middle school and high school student-athletes such as myself, reassess how we might go about choosing a potential college for our son.

One of the knocks on rehiring Durkin was that McNair’s death had destroyed the integrity of the football team’s recruiting process. If Durkin came into my home and promised to take care of my son, treat him with respect, inspire him and provide him with the foundation for a successful life, I’d probably laugh in his face. Any mention of valuing the lives of student-athletes made by the Maryland administration would be laughed at as well.

My son is a three-sport athlete and I expect that one day a college coach will come into my home and try to convince me to send him to their university under his four-year care. Relinquishing your child — who you have valued like your most prized possession for 17 or 18 years — to a stranger who wants to make a business deal cloaked in genuine appreciation is tough. Especially when you work in the sports industry and have your pulse on the true objectives of most of these coaches, which is to get the best players, say anything to get the parents on board, keep winning games at all costs and crush anyone who goes against the grain.

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The philosophy at the middle school and high school level should be much different. Less of a business. But instead of coaching, encouragement and development, many are receiving verbal abuse, humiliation and existing in a toxic atmosphere that’s not conducive to kids at that stage of development in life.

The University of Maryland’s football culture has been blasted by current players, former players and students. Over the past several weeks, two current Maryland players, multiple people close to the football program, and former players and football staffers spoke to ESPN about the culture under Durkin, particularly strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who was one of Durkin’s first hires at Maryland in 2015.

These are the conclusions drawn from the information gathered about the program. 

  • 1. There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Court was angry.
  • 2. The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
  • 3. Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.

The Jordan McNair death and the frightening truths revealed about Maryland’s toxic culture under DJ Durkin is every parent’s worst nightmare. Now that the veil has been lifted and everyone is scattering like mice, the President Wallace Loh has announced his eventual resignation in June. And on Thursday The chairman of University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents resigned.

Parents tend to be blinded by unrealistic pro dreams, big name schools with mythical reputations and false faces. These college coaches tell you that they care about your child and want them to become productive adults. They boast about the number of pros and All-Americans that they’ve “coached” to success.

But as soon as a young man doesn’t meet the expectation of functioning as a machine rather than a human being with feelings, they often incur the wrath of a coach turned dictator, judge and punisher. Our best men and brightest black men in particular are attacked often racially and verbally and called names that question their masculinity, drive and commitment.

Nobody sends their kid to college to be berated by an adult who thinks his position entitles him to treat kids like animals. There’s undoubtedly a level of toughness, commitment and resilience that is needed to play football. Sometimes a kid needs a swift kick in the butt to get going,  but we can’t let the desire to win blind our human instincts, compassion, understanding and common sense.

Maryland failed miserably in this task. The death of Jordan McNair may be an isolated incident, but it exposed a deeper, unacceptable culture with underlying racial tones that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. We all saw the white students holding “Black Students Matter” signs. You do the math on that.

When Durkin was briefly rehired, McNair’s Dad said,  “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.”

I can totally relate as a father of an aspiring athlete who hopes to become a person of socially redeeming value through the camaraderie, teachings, lessons, relationships forged and leadership principles acquired by participation in sports.

Jordan McNair’s death has made me even more aware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing that run some of these top programs. You have to do your research and ask questions about a coach’s actions when he’s not in his public role as a walking billboard and a cash cow for the university.

What makes it worse is that McNair’s death was avoidable. People say today’s kids have gotten a bit soft and that might be true, but his death had nothing to do with an inability to work hard, being lazy or weak.

It was a medical problem. The same problem we’ve seen kill football players in the past, most notably former Vikings offensive guard Korey Stringer, who passed from heat stroke during training camp in 2001.

A study by the Exercise and Sports Science Department at UNC claims that, before Stringer, there were 19 deaths of high school and college players from heat stroke since 1995. His death was totally preventable had the culture of the situation been less archaic and the medical staff been allowed to do their jobs without feeling like honest diagnosis makes them an impediment to the coach’s overall objectives.

In fact, back in 2009, the widow of Stringer, the nephew of iconic Rutgers hoops coach Vivian Stringer,  reached a settlement with the N.F.L. regarding his death. McNair’s death falls in the same tragic category and of course, Durkin couldn’t remain as coach.

McNair showed signs of extreme exhaustion, had difficulty standing upright while running sprints and had a temperature of 106 degrees before he died of heatstroke, multiple sources told ESPN.

Durkin failed as the leader of that team. The university failed in taking swift action and ensuring the thousands of potential future recruits that a tragedy of this nature would never happen again. It shouldn’t have taken another day of embarrassing media lambasting and student protests for Durkin to be officially fired.

On the other hand, it was more time for a father of a young athlete to really take in what has happened here and choose the university my student athlete will attend in the future with a deeper purpose. I can no longer be moved by exploitative, powerhouse schools who play on TV and have sneaker deals with conglomerates.

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It’s become another life and death situation  (like teaching my Black and Latino son how to deal with trigger happy cops) that requires our full attention as parents. Before you send your kid to a college, make sure the head coach breeds a nurturing, protective culture of family, because some of these guys are Jekyl and Hyde.

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