The NMFishbowl Podcast: Rick Maese

By Daniel Libit

A college football coach is suspended amidst a school investigation into various allegations of player mistreatment. It’s later revealed that school administrators had received a letter, long before any action was taken, warning of an abusive culture in the program. The football coach is adamant about staying in his job and seeking vindication. Moreover, he has a huge contract buyout, and the athletic department is already under financial pressures caused, in part, by the continued debt owed on a pricey athletic construction project.

Is any of this sounding familiar, dear reader?

The catalytic difference, for the University of Maryland and its embattled football coach D.J. Durkin, is that there was a death: Jordan McNair, a Terrapins offensive lineman, collapsed from exhaustion and heat stroke during a team practice in late May, passing away in the hospital a few days later. It was subsequently reported by that the Maryland football staff had, at best, failed to act on obvious signs of McNair’s physical distress. Since that time, reporting by the Washington Post’s Rick Maese has further illuminated other institutional failures and oversights that may have preordained this horrendous result.

“We are not talking about a thing specific to Maryland football,” Maese tells me in the latest episode of The NMFishbowl Podcast. “They can be found at Michigan or Ohio State or New Mexico. It’s just: is it acceptable in college football? Is it acceptable in any kind of work place or any kind of school environment where we send kids?” You can click below to listen to the podcast (or find it on iTunes here):

Maese joined the Post in 2009, serving as the paper’s Washington Redskins beat writer for three seasons. He previously worked at the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel. A native New Mexican, Maese — like yours truly — got his start in journalism at the now-defunct afternoon daily, the Albuquerque Tribune.

Over the last couple of months, Maese has been covering the fallout of the Maryland scandal, reporting on a number of alarming details about what the school knew — or should have known — was going on with the football team, before the ultimate tragedy struck.  After more than two months, it appears a university-tasked committee will soon be releasing the findings of its broader investigation into McNair’s death and other allegations of player mistreatment in Durkin’s program;  the University System of Maryland Board of Regents is scheduled to meet on Friday.

In our conversation, Maese and I compare notes about the experiences and takeaways of covering the alleged wrongdoings of an intercollegiate athletic program and the challenges of penetrating the embedded code of silence that has particularly fossilized in college football.

Here are some key takeaways (click the relevant links to jump directly to that portion of the podcast audio)…

Maese on how the Maryland scandal comes down to an interpretation of, rather than a dispute over, the facts on the ground: “Even when we talk to people that support Durkin and the strength coach — who is the only one who has left the program — they don’t deny that some of these things took place. They just say that the intent behind it was not to hurt or punish kids, it was to encourage and motivate them. And certainly, there were some former players who thrived in that kind of environment. We all take different kind of teaching, we all respond to different kind of coaching, so I think one of the difficult things that [school] investigators, and ultimately the [Maryland] Board of Regents, is going to have to decide is: were they motivating kids or were they abusing kids, and what’s the line there?…” 

“A lot of the things that the investigation is going to find out, I don’t know that it is going to necessarily be in doubt.  It’s going to be: how do we interpret it? The coaches, clearly, seem like they were doing right be the kids and trying to move them to reach their potential or exceed their potential. And a lot of kids felt otherwise. They felt they were being targeted or abused, humiliated, singled out. I think we are going to find that the coaches aren’t going to deny a ton of things, they are going to deny the intent.”

Maese on whether any of this would have come out had it not been for McNair’s death: “A parent sent a letter a year-and-a-half before Jordan McNair died and (she) sent it to the athletic director (and) the school president, saying that these kids are being abused. I do think there could have been some potential whistleblowers who would have reached their breaking point and come froward, with or without a student’s death.” 

Maese on the players and parents who have spoken out against Durkin: “When I’ve talked to Durkin defenders, I’ve heard two things over and over. One is: this happens everywhere, why is Maryland being singled out? The other is: it’s only a few kids that were disgruntled, that didn’t like their playing time — those are the ones speaking out and complaining. I don’t know how to respond to that, because I don’t really know what the magic number is of how many kids have to have bad experiences for there to be a larger cultural issue or systemic issue.”

“I think if you have any number of players that think this is a bad, unhealthy, toxic environment, then it’s worth looking into and figuring out the problem there. Like in any sports team or any organization, there are going to be the few high performers who are going to get the star treatment. They are going to get some kinds of benefits, whether they are tangible or inherent, because of what they bring to the table. And in college football or college athletics, you also have this issue where coaches want to get rid of players who aren’t contributing, they want to free up those scholarships. So, how do they do that? They make those players a little less comfortable, they try to make them feel like they are unwanted.”

Maese on the fundamental challenges of finding college football whistleblowers“We went to great lengths to talk to as many people as possible. We went knocking on doors and cold-calling people and reaching out to them through various social media platforms. People didn’t want to necessarily deny, but they didn’t want to engage. They wanted to move on with their lives, they didn’t want to reflect. A lot of what we heard was: what’s the point? Nothing is going to change, anyway. And I think you really need in anyone who is going to be a whistle-blower in some fashion: they need to believe that coming forward will make a difference. And a lot of people in this universe don’t feel like that’s the case, because they know the power dynamic is so heavily [weighted] towards a head coach. That’s who is making seven-figures, that is who calls the shots, that is who is protected by boosters, athletic directors, school presidents…”

“That’s why I was so happy with the (Sep. 30) story, that we did have a few players that were willing to put their names to it, because it lends it some credibility. These guys have tried to move on, but they are so distraught and shaken by what happened, they felt they had to come forward and put their names to it. And these are experiences where people are still suffering from mental illness associated with their time at Maryland.”

Maese on Maryland’s transparency scorecard, thus far“They wrapped up one investigation that was specific to the events of May 29, the day that Jordan McNair suffered from heat stroke. We really thought that report would be heavily redacted, especially since Jordan McNair’s family’s attorney had signaled some concerns early about how much information they wanted out there. So, we thought we were going to get something that was just pages and pages of black boxes. It turns out, almost the entire thing was un-redacted. And I challenged them on about two-and-a-half pages that were redacted, and the next day they made those un-redacted. So, in that sense, they have been somewhat open and transparent. So, they deserve credit for that. I have no idea how this next report is going to look. We’re going to be talking about possible accusations and allegations…I will be very curious if allegations are spelled out, if names are attached, how detailed they get and how much they make public. They have been saying they believe in transparency from day one, and I think the real test is what they share from this next investigative report.”

Here are some additional reading materials and useful links…


Featured Image by Maryland GovPics / Flickr