Investigation of Maryland program shows abuses but no toxic culture

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A two-month investigation into allegations of abuse within Maryland's football program found there was not a "toxic culture" under coach DJ Durkin, but troubling incidents occurred under Durkin's leadership, according to a copy of the report submitted to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and obtained Thursday by ESPN.

"The Maryland football team did not have a 'toxic culture,' but it did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out," according to the report, which was produced by an eight-person commission and given to the 17-member board of regents last Friday.

According to the commission's report, there were "many occasions" when former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who resigned in August, "engaged in abusive conduct" during his tenure at Maryland. This included hurling homophobic slurs, which Court denied but others confirmed to the commission.

"Mr. Court would attempt to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit, all behavior unacceptable by any reasonable standard," the report stated.

The commission found there was "a lack of clarity in Mr. Court's reporting lines." Durkin told the commission that his contract states he doesn't supervise strength and conditioning coaches, but the commission disagreed with his interpretation.

Court told the commission that he was never informed who his supervisor would be, and that no one assessed his work performance. The commission called this "a departmental failure."

The commission found that Durkin bears some responsibility for Court's "unacceptable behavior," but other factors contributed to the coach not addressing that behavior. The report found that Maryland's athletic department was "dysfunctional" and "failed to provide Mr. Durkin with the tools, resources, and guidance necessary to support and educate a first-time head coach in a major football conference."

As of Thursday afternoon, Durkin and two athletic trainers, Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, remained on paid administrative leave.

University President Wallace D. Loh launched the investigation in August following ESPN's report of allegations of abuse within Durkin's program, centering on Court. Maryland also hired Walters Inc. to conduct a separate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the June 13 death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died of heatstroke he suffered at a May 29 team workout.

The report found that Maryland's culture "did not cause the tragic death of Jordan McNair." But a current player told the commission: "I certainly have witnessed a mentality where everything is hyper-aggressive and there was no room for players to show weakness. The situation [with McNair] that occurred this summer was a clear culmination of that with someone who didn't look out for himself when he didn't feel well because he felt the pressure around him to not look like a 'failure.'"

On Thursday afternoon, Maryland issued a statement: "The University is committed to a fair and accountable process. We will continue that commitment as we work to ensure the safety and well-being of our student-athletes. The University received the report yesterday and we are carefully reviewing it."

The regents announced they will meet on Friday in a closed session. Loh and athletics director Damon Evans will attend the meeting to discuss the report and what it means for them, a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN, confirming a report by The Washington Post.

Court, hired by Durkin in January 2016, had no performance reviews during his tenure and "was effectively accountable to no one," according to the report. The commission attributed this to a "rift" between former athletic director Kevin Anderson and then-deputy Evans, who eventually became interim athletic director before being elevated to the permanent role in July.

Durkin, who was interviewed for more than 10 hours, told the commission he wasn't responsible for supervising Court. He did, however, work with Court every day, and Court's contract lists Durkin as the person to whom he reported. The commission found that players feared bringing concerns to Durkin because he and Court were so close, and some players told commission members they viewed them as "the same person."

In 2016, Durkin told Sports Illustrated that Court was "the most important hire I made."

"When you're changing a culture, that's where it starts," Durkin told SI when he was hired. "Rick and I are as about in line with how we see things as you can possibly be."

The commission received complaints from players, parents and coaches against both Durkin and Court, voicing frustrations about the intensity of workouts, "insufficient recovery time" and Court's behavior.

The report lists the first allegation against Durkin's program came in the spring of 2016, when a football player informed an athletic department administrator that a strength and conditioning coach had used language that made him feel "less than human." The administrator told the commission that they informed Evans about the complaint, but Evans stated he doesn't remember any conversation about it.

Near the end of the 2016 season, Anderson, Loh and others received an anonymous email alleging mistreatment by Durkin, allegations of NCAA violations by exceeding practice-time limits, and allegations that Anderson was failing to "look out for the physical and mental welfare of his athletes." Loh asked that the email be shared with Anderson for informational purposes, and said that no response was needed because it had been sent anonymously. Loh and his chief of staff both told the commission they have no memory of the email, but Loh said while Anderson didn't need to respond to the email, Anderson still could investigate and take any appropriate action.

Anderson sent the email to Evans and two other department staffers, who told him they hadn't seen any inappropriate behavior by Durkin. Evans didn't recall receiving the email but told the committee that he must have received it. No one in the department ended up investigating the allegations in the email, and Durkin was never questioned about it.

"This episode demonstrates an abject failure by the Athletics Department," the commission's report states.

"They would say things that you don't say to another grown man," a former player, talking about Court, told the commission. "Not respectful. P**** a** b****. You can't call another grown man that. ... Fighting words. Especially when you know the intent behind the words."

Others called the culture "intense but supportive" and "tough but loving."

Current Maryland players provided varied assessments of Durkin to the commission. "If you're not a superstar he doesn't really care about you," a current player said. "You are just a number on the roster. He needs to learn how to control his staff and become a decent human being. He should not be our head coach."

The commission did not make any personnel recommendations, but it did suggest the head football coach should not supervise the strength and conditioning coaches, nor have the ability to hire and fire them. Other suggestions included an independent medical care model, and a log of all complaints within the athletic department and how those are addressed.

The USM Board of Regents may use the report to make suggestions to Loh, who has the authority to remove or retain employees at the College Park campus.

"The board accepts the commission's report and findings with deep respect and gratitude for the thorough and deliberate manner in which its members went about their work," board chairman James T. Brady said in a statement. "The board also accepts the independent commission's recommendations for reforming the UMCP athletics department, including recommendations related to the strength and conditioning program and the adoption of an independent medical model."

The report extensively detailed the "significant dysfunction" in Maryland's athletic department under both Anderson and Evans. The commission found that in 2016, Anderson told a university assistant vice president that Evans was "trying to undermine" him and ultimately take his job. Anderson alleged Evans would go over his head and contact Loh regarding athletic department business. According to the report, this included "the renegotiating of Anderson's contract."

Anderson was put on sabbatical in October 2017, at which time Evans became interim athletic director.

The results of the investigation into McNair's death, which were released on Sept. 21, said members of the athletic training staff failed to quickly diagnose and properly treat the heatstroke symptoms at the May workout.

On Aug. 14, after ESPN reported McNair had been admitted to a local hospital with a temperature of 106 degrees, Loh revealed preliminary findings from the Walters Inc. report and said, "The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made."

The commission said it was not their job to "re-investigate the events of May 29," and deferred to the Walters report "with respect to its factual findings."

Another issue the commission looked into regarded a Title IX complaint and a questionable response by the athletic department . Around June 20, 2017, the Title IX Office opened an investigation of sexual misconduct alleged by a student affiliated with athletics against two football players. According to an internal investigation, Anderson or Durkin or both "solicited and facilitated payment to a law firm to represent the accused players."

They attempted to cover the $15,000 fee by calling it a "speaking engagement." Eventually, it was labeled an "eligibility consultation" so the university foundation could pay for it.

"The use of Foundation monies was also questionable at best," the report said.

The commission's report also states "Perhaps most problematic, the athletic department funded the legal defense of the student-athletes accused of misconduct, but it did not provide legal support to the complainant, who was also affiliated with the athletics department." In the end, the Office of Student Conduct found one of the football players was responsible for the alleged violations and the other was not. The guilty one was expelled.

The commission interviewed 165 people, including 55 athletes who played for Durkin; 24 parents of players; 60 current and former athletic department staff members, including coaches; 12 university officials no longer in the department; and 14 others. There was a mandatory, anonymous survey of the team on Sept. 9 in which 94 players participated, as well as other opportunities to speak with the commission.

Investigators met with both Durkin and Court three times, as well as with Robinson and Nordwall. Former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who preceded Durkin, also was interviewed.

The board discussed the report in person Tuesday and on a conference call Thursday afternoon.

Durkin has a 10-15 record in his first two seasons at Maryland.