Not A Great Week for Player Safety, Not a Great Era for Human Safety

The University of Maryland fired head coach D. J. Durkin yesterday, as a result of allegations of a toxic culture that led to the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair.

Well, sort of.

That first sentence would imply that the university acted swiftly to terminate a coach who worked an unpaid player beyond the limits his body could handle and did the right thing because principles matter more to this respected academic institution than wins and losses. That would be giving them too much credit. Actually, the university reinstated him on Tuesday after an investigation (he had been on administrative leave since early August) led to the school’s Board of Regents recommend they keep him on. They only fired him after players and students protested the reinstatement, demanding justice for their fallen classmate. They only did what should have obviously been done months ago after they saw the backlash to maintaining the status quo.

There are a couple lessons to be learned from this. For one thing, protests do have a place in football, and even common sense changes don’t get made without people speaking out. Secondly, as much attention has been paid to victims of abuse, the lengths institutions will go to sweep it under the rug and give abusers the benefit of the doubt are profoundly and depressingly great. But we already knew that.

The Maryland news comes the same week that Gregg Williams got another head coaching job. Williams, who not that long ago was banned from coaching in any capacity for being the architect of “Bountygate” during his time as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, is now the interim head coach of the Cleveland Browns after the team fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley earlier this week. On its surface, it’s yet another anecdote from the circus that is the Browns. Anyone who watched Hard Knocks this summer saw how dysfunctional they were under Jackson, and how nobody on that coaching staff was on the same page (and that was in a reality show in where the team had editorial control of the footage!), but it also shows that NFL owners are quicker to forgive a coach who paid players to intentionally injure their opponents (and whose ban was lifted after just one season, and has been consistently employed ever since) than they are to forgive a player who consulted a veteran to find the most respectful way to protest racial injustice. Needless to say, this is a tough look for the Browns, and the NFL as a whole. We can’t get people to do the right thing when it’s so much more convenient to ignore what is wrong.

I don’t mean to single out the University of Maryland in all this. I went to a Division III university so I have no allegiance in college football, but I really liked Joe Paterno before I learned he had been enabling a pedophile for decades and the all-time wins record and high graduation rates were not enough to win me back as he lost everything on his death bed. Urban Meyer knowingly kept a domestic abuser on his Florida and Ohio State coaching staffs, and after a hefty three game suspension, Ohio State may very well play for the National Championship this year.

If you go across the NFL, every team has a players, or coaches, or an owner who have gotten away with things they should not have because of the results they have gotten or the power they wield. In baseball, the Houston Astros were heavily criticized for trading for domestic abuser Roberto Osuna (who is still awaiting trial, but served a suspension from MLB) to bolster their bullpen, but they are not the only team that would have done that. I don’t wish injury on people, but I was glad relieved Steven Wright (who was suspended 15 games earlier this year for domestic violence)’s knee was bothering him too much to morally complicate the Boston’s incredible postseason run. Fortunately for Red Sox fans, a guy who throws a hundred miles per hour after two Tommy John surgeries was able to eat innings like a knuckleballer, because, in that case, the right thing was also the easy thing.

Such was the case in Maryland. The school clearly wanted to keep Durkin, but when the players and the student body were not having it, he did not have Urban Meyer’s track record to justify the non-decision. In his two seasons as head coach of the Terrapins, Durkin wen 10-15 overall, and 5-13 in The Big Ten. A bad coach who forces a teenager into the hospital with heatstroke only loses his job when he literally loses the locker room and the campus, but that’s too low a bar to hold people to anymore. This is a far bigger problem than sports, but if we can’t figure out there, how can we expect to get it right anywhere?

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