A few years back, an old friend of mine, who used to play lower-level college football, asked me, a faux movie buff, if I’d seen any good movies lately. I told him I was particularly obsessed at that moment with Whiplash, the Damien Chazelle movie about a tyrannical music teacher that would ultimately win J.K. Simmons an Oscar. My friend told me he loved that movie too, and then said something that surprised me.
“That movie is exactly what it feels like to play football,” he said.
This took me aback, as I didn’t entirely understanding the connection between his old gig smashing his skull into the midsection of strangers for three hours once a week and, well, competitive drumming, but he explained. “The whole point of football is to break you down and build you back up,” he said. “That dude is basically a football coach. They all think the only way to make you great is to be a monumental shithead.”
I thought about my friend’s grand theory of football coaching last week, when ESPN revealed, in excruciating, nauseating detail, how, at the University of Maryland, a culture of bullying, a coaching staff obsessed with “toughening up” its players, and a reckless disregard for the health and safety of unpaid college kids ultimately led to the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June. Several unnamed Maryland players and staffers spoke of the oppressive, draconian tactics head coach D.J. Durkin and his staff (particularly strength and conditioning coach Rick Court) would use on players during practice: slapping meals out of the hands of (supposedly) overweight players, forcing other players to eat to the point of vomiting, making players “routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift.” One player was even derided after he passed out following a drill. It all culminated in the death of McNair, who suffered a heat stroke during a practice but reportedly lay for nearly an hour before someone finally called 911. It was McNair’s death that led to Maryland players speaking out, and the ESPN report. “It shows a cultural problem that Jordan knew that if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood, he would be targeted,” one of McNair’s teammates said. “He had to go until he couldn’t.” (Durkin and Court, along with some other team staffers, have been placed on administrative leave and are expected to ultimately be fired.)
What has been fascinating in the wake of the incident is, well, how self-contained it has been. ESPN’s report was an explosive one that received around-the-clock promotion on its family of networks, and the university has obviously moved in response (with a press conference taking responsibility, kind of). But the incident hasn’t led to many moments of public reflection from coaches, players, or those of us who document their goings-on. When Urban Meyer was put on administrative leave two weeks ago after news broke that he kept an assistant coach on staff after learning about the coach’s domestic violence issues (and lied about knowing them just last month), the move was surprising but not shocking: That is what happens in the year 2018 when you don’t report violence against women, particularly when you are a high-profile state employee. But the Durkin case is different, because it involves, one suspects, something much more common. No one would ever claim that what Meyer did happens all the time. But what Durkin did? That’s college football. That’s sports. Or at least it once was.
Obviously, the major factor in Durkin’s punishment was the death of McNair, a horrible and avoidable tragedy. But had it been avoided, and it remained business as usual in College Park, I bet that not only would Durkin still be utilizing the same coaching tactics … I bet he would have been praised for it. I bet he would have gotten a raise. This is not to excuse his tactics, far from it. The story’s excerpts are horrifying; the one that got under my skin the most was players being screamed at for being “thieves” for having a scholarship and, to weed them out of the program, having them dragged across the field if they collapsed after a grueling run. This is inhumane behavior, particularly when it involves teenagers who don’t even get paid for any of this. It is shameful.
It is also almost certainly par for the course in football, and frankly has been for decades. College football coaches have always been frighteningly intense creatures — remember, Hall of Fame coach Woody Hayes’s career ended when he literally tackled an opposing play during live action — and they’ve only gotten worse as the money and accompanying pressure have increased over the last decade. Vince Lombardi, to this day the most revered coach in football history, once forced a tight end to play on a broken foot, and his tirades and insistence on “discipline” were legendary. I, as a non–football player, can read the list of abuses at Maryland and be appalled. But ask some people, in their 40s like me, who played football in college, or have even been a coach themselves, and they’ll probably start telling “back in my day” stories; or worse, start shaking their head and grousing about these kids today. It is telling that the only coach who has had any sort of response to the Durkin story was South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who was furious. Oh, not at the abuses … Muschamp was furious that the ESPN story used anonymous sources.
The implication was clear: Those players, if Fake News didn’t make them up, are snitches. And weak. You can be certain he is not the only college football coach he is speaking for.
It wasn’t just him, either. Here’s Jermaine Carter Jr., a current rookie NFL linebacker who played for Maryland and Durkin just last year.
We can dislike this culture. But we cannot deny it is the culture. You can tell from the reaction of some of the Maryland boosters who rose to Durkin’s defense, including one who told The Washington Post (anonymously, it must be said, Coach Muschamp), that “[Durkin] is getting made to hang out to dry” and “some of these so-called athletes are looking for participation trophies. Life is not about participation. It’s about learning life skills. [Durkin] has been a great teacher of those.” These are the sort of people who would argue that this “teaching,” this hard-assedness, works, that it’s even the only way to instill discipline and these life skills. But of course, tyrants always think their way is the only way. That’s why they’re tyrants. That this has been widespread accepted coaching technique for decades is not a sign that it works; it’s a sign that it has been considered the only way. When a successful coach is a tyrant, we — with, again, a dash of “back in our day”–ism — credit the cruelty rather than the fact that, you know, he had better players than the other tyrant. Put another way: A great jazz drummer is going to be a great jazz drummer whether you throw a cymbal at his head or not. That you threw it says more about you than him. And in football: Everybody throws cymbals.
In a smart, righteously angry piece for Deadspin over the weekend, writer Chris Thompson noted that sports have always revolved around fierce physical challenges, forging mettle through severe trial, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing:
It’s possible to find something noble, though, in the idea of grueling work and rigid discipline being deployed as a way of uniting all members of a team behind a single purpose, even one as goofy as scoring more touchdowns than the opposition. Physical trial is exhilarating, and perseverance is a trait worth learning, even under harsh conditions, and if parents can get behind the idea of their children achieving self-improvement via the rigorous conditioning of an intense football program, so be it.
That’s an excellent way to sum it up — the idea that strength through competition isn’t just thrilling, but important — but in the next sentence, Thompson says, “But that’s not what has been described as taking place at the University of Maryland.” Well … maybe not to him, or to me. But that humiliation, that militaristic breaking down of the individual for the greater team, has always been a part of sports. Its ugliness and its tragic risks are made only more apparent with McNair’s death. It is grotesque. But to pretend that Maryland’s football culture is a unique football culture is to kid one’s self. The relative silence of college football coaches reeks of nervousness and self-preservation. They know it could happen to them too.
There are signs this culture could someday change, for the same reason sports in general have begun to change in recent years: Players have more power than they used to, and coaches have to respect that. Sports Illustrated documented in 2015 that as players began to get more tools to report abuse, institutions were forced to react and, for once, didn’t reflexively take the coach’s side. As an expert put it in that piece, “There’s a little more rebellion against bullying coaches because athletes now feel they have a few more options. If you don’t have any options, you don’t have any power.” The age of Bobby Knight being the most famous and adored coach in college sports are long over.
But that’s all from the outside, and all after the fact. The only time coach abuse comes to light is when something out of the ordinary happens, like McNair’s death, or an active player going on the record with abuse in an extremely public way. The culture of sports is to keep it in the locker room. That culture might be changing among young players. But it’s changing a lot faster for them than it is for coaches. What happened at Maryland is horrifying. The one coach who has spoken up about it, Muschamp, also finds it horrifying. But not for the reason you do. One might say it’s not his tempo.