When student athlete Jordan McNair collapsed during football practice at the University of Maryland last May, then died in the hospital a few weeks later, many wondered who, at the school, would take the blame. Months passed… yet nothing happened. Even as reports of rough treatment by the coaching staff and a so-called “no-quit” policy were leaked to the press, Maryland officials said little and did nothing.
As the 2018 college football season approached, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned, leaving behind allegations of what many called “brutal treatment” of players under his charge. Then the season started, and nothing else happened. While boosters, fans, and the media wondered – and more than a few berated the board of regents for inactivity – nothing was done.
Pressure continued to mount as the team continued to compete. Then, finally, someone stepped up to make a statement about a situation that, plainly, was not going away. University of Maryland president Wallace Loh came out and said the university would not be firing head coach DJ Durkin.
The public erupted. Sports media could not believe it, and even many fans were outraged. PR pros sat back in disbelief. How could a major American university be so completely unaware, so oblivious to the message they were sending and the anger their lack of action was engendering?
This time, it took the board at Maryland less than 24 hours to hear the message they had been deaf to for several months. Loh came out the day after saying Durkin’s job was safe to announce that he had been fired. Most consider that to be the correct reaction, albeit a very late reaction.
The delay has now created yet more negative PR for the university. The school is in the middle of a season, making Durkin’s firing and the reason for it the top headline in every newscast about every single U of Maryland game for the rest of the season. Instead of avoiding the situation, the inaction by the board of regents and the uneven PR messaging has created what will likely be a steady stream of negative PR that will last at least through the rest of the year.
Now, some may argue, understandably, that the school had to go through proper protocol before it decided who to blame for McNair’s death. They did that. There was an investigation. It concluded in September and determined that trainers with the team “failed” the student athlete. The details of the report are damning, including the fact that it took someone more than an hour to call 911.
The report made it clear that the “culture” of the program contributed to the conditions that led to McNair’s death. Interviews with current players were harshly critical of the expectations of the coaching staff, which, ultimately, lands on the desk of the head coach.
When it looked like that wouldn’t happen, when Durkin returned to work after a leave of absence. Loh announced he would be retiring in protest. Some players refused to attend team meetings, and ESPN started looking into the issue, turning the story into national news.
In the end, from a PR perspective, the university allowed a tragic situation to turn into a PR nightmare due to stark failure to understand and manage expectations after the tragedy.