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Maryland football player’s heatstroke death raises scrutiny of coaching

University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, 19, was hospitalized in May after he had trouble breathing and standing upright during practice. His death two weeks later sent shockwaves through the college football world and raised questions about the coaching staff's response. Amna Nawaz sits down with sports writer and author John Feinstein.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In sports news, the death of a University of Maryland football player earlier this summer has prompted a number of investigations. As Amna Nawaz explains, much of the scrutiny has focused on what some have called a culture of abuse within the school's football program.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In May, 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair was hospitalized after he had trouble breathing and standing upright during practice. He died two weeks later, his family says, of heatstroke. His death sent shockwaves through the college football world and raised questions about how, and how quickly, the coaching staff responded.

    This afternoon, University of Maryland president Wallace Loh said that while the investigation is still ongoing, mistakes were made in how Jordan was treated, and he pledged complete accountability.

    I am joined by John Feinstein, a longtime sports writer, and author of a number of books on college athletics.

    Thank you for being here.

  • John Feinstein:

    My pleasure, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we heard Wallace Loh earlier today say the buck stops with me, complete accountability, we accept moral and legal responsibility here. What did you make of that statement especially now before the investigation is even over?

  • John Feinstein:

    I found it remarkable that Wallace Loh basically said that he had told the parents we are legally and morally responsible for Jordan's death. There's going to be a lawsuit. I mean, they've already hired a lawyer long ago on this.

    Now, the question is, has Maryland agreed to settle very quietly and that's why he's willing to publicly admit fault on behalf of the training staff? He made a point of separating the training staff from the coaching staff, because he said he believes the head coach, D.J. Durkin, is entitled to due process and has appointed a four-man commission to investigate.

    But the strength coach, Rick Court, who is at the middle of much of this, quote/unquote, resigned today, clearly told he had to resign. He didn't get due process. Whether he deserves it or not, he didn't get it. It's a very complicated case. Of course, the focus should be on the tragedy of Jordan McNair's death.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is complicated indeed. And D.J. Durkin, the head coach remains on administrative leave at the time. But I want to ask you about the other thing you mentioned, the focus on the training staff here, because this young's man death it seems was completely preventable.

    The family lawyer has said, believes was from heat stroke.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reports have said when he got to the hospital, he had a body temperature of 106 degrees. Heat stroke is something that's sort of basic protocol, right? To bring the body temperature down, you put them in cold immersion.

    What does it say to you that the training staff didn't see it or didn't need it quickly?

  • John Feinstein:

    Obviously, it's impossible to know without being there exactly what occurred, but as you said, heat stroke is prevent — death by heat stroke is very preventable if you can get the body temperature down to 102 within 30 minutes, which is plenty of time if, as you said, they ice or do whatever is necessary.

    Apparently, they didn't do that. It was still 106 when he got to the hospital. More than an hour after the attack occurred, again according to the records, 911 records. But that's why the training staff is clearly being thrown under the bus frankly by Wallace Loh. They may deserve to be thrown under the bus, but you wonder, because there were coaches present, including D.J. Durkin for this workout, how in the world Maryland can eventually walk away from this with D.J. Durkin still as the head coach.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, there's a lot of focus now on the coaching staff, too, right?

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And because of the scrutiny from Jordan McNair's death, teammates have come forward and said, look, there is a culture problem here. It's very toxic. There is a lot of verbal abuse, a lot of mockery, belittling of players.

    You cover a lot of college football. You've seen a lot of teams through the years.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yeah.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Was it excessive in some way based on the reports you've seen? What's different about —

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, if the reports — if the ESPN report was true, and they were the ones who broke the story, then it was clearly excessive, because there was emotional abuse, players who didn't perform were forced to locker in the shower room. Players who were overweight were forced to eat candy bars in front of their teammates as a way of humiliating them. Players were told they had to eat until they threw up to put weight on, that kind of thing.

    That's over the line. Football is a very macho sport. Players are pushed. They're challenged, particularly by their strength coach who they work with almost every day, during the course of the year, even during the off season.

    Usually, strength coaches are as close to the players as anybody on the staff, but there is a line. There is a line between pushing someone to do their best to get better to push themselves to the limit, and going over the line. And the best coaches are the ones who know where the line is. It appears, appears based on what we know, that there were coaches at Maryland who didn't see that line and went over it.

    And did that lead to Jordan McNair's death? Who knows? But it certainly is something that has to be looked at.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you look at this big picture, you mentioned that line. I mean, I was a college athlete myself. I know what it is to do —

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    — three-a-days in extreme heat, right, to have your strength coach riding you, coaches yelling at you, throwing stuff at you. Where is that line? When you're pushing athletes the peak performance, how do you know when you've gone too far?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, the best coaches understand that what you can take might be different than what I can take. And each player is an individual. And his level or her level is different emotionally and physically. They get to know the kids as I said very well.

    So, you might be able to take something that I can't. But there are also coaches who aren't as good at their jobs or as smart. And again, the macho mentality comes in, particularly in football, where you're expected to play hurt.

    There is a difference football players will tell you between being injured and being hurt. If you're injured, you can't play. If you're hurt, you're expected to play, through pain and through broken bones often.

    And that is where that macho mentality comes in, and being able to understand that there are limits is a key to being successful as a football coach. And the thing is, if you're a successful football coach, you can get away with almost anything.

    D.J. Durkin 10-15 in two years at Maryland. A player has died on his watch. I doubt he'll survive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John Feinstein, thanks for your time.

  • John Feinstein:

    My pleasure, Amna. Tanks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An important story to follow.

    And that wraps it up for the NewsHour tonight. I'm Judy Woodruff.

    For all of us at PBS NewsHour, thank you and we'll see you soon.

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