Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The many villains of the University of Maryland football scandal express their villainy in diverse ways. There’s the outright brutality of now-former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who reportedly threw weights at players and forced one player to eat to the point of vomiting. There’s the more understated cruelty of head football coach DJ Durkin, who, according to one player, used Court to create a culture of fear and intimidation without becoming completely despised.
But a different kind of villainy was on display during Tuesday’s press conference with university President Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans. It was the cowardice you see whenever powerful people are caught in misbehavior, yet have no intention of relinquishing their power. It’s the cowardice of the forced apology, with language carefully pre-examined by lawyers and PR professionals.
Loh’s behavior creates the culture of ass-covering embraced by subordinates like Evans. Though brief, the president’s remarks on Tuesday are a master class in how to abdicate moral leadership when one’s institution is consumed by scandal.
Let’s start from the beginning. Loh reports that he and Evans drove up to Baltimore to speak with the parents of Jordan McNair, the football player who died a preventable death from an ailment he contracted at a team workout. Loh says he made this trip because he wanted to apologize, “in private,” on behalf of the university.
Of course, Loh diminishes the impact of a private meeting by immediately telling reporters about it. But the bigger issue is the fact that it took two months for the university to apologize for a 19-year-old student suffering fatal heatstroke on its watch. We heard nothing like this in June or July, and if ESPN hadn’t forced the university’s hand, we probably wouldn’t have heard it in August, either.
The presser goes downhill from there. Loh admits fault, but only on behalf of the athletic training staff, repeatedly emphasizing that his criticism is not of other football employees. At one point he says, “Our athletic training staff — not the coaching staff, the athletic training staff — … they basically misdiagnosed the situation.”
Such a narrow focus suggests, astoundingly, that Loh may still be trying to protect Durkin, who’s currently on administrative leave but hasn’t been fired. Attempting to restrict blame to a small group of subordinates is one of the classic tactics of a cowardly leader.
Loh then tries to cleanly separate culpability for McNair’s death and culpability for the football program’s abusive culture, beginning with a brutally awkward pivot: “The second thing I want to address [is] the reported allegations that came out recently on conduct that is simply inappropriate.”
These two things, as Loh surely knows, are inseparable. ESPN’s report detailed a culture in which players were shamed for showing physical limitations — just the kind of culture that would encourage callousness toward a player showing signs of heatstroke. Indeed, one player said McNair likely pushed through the fateful workout because he feared retribution if he stopped. But Loh sees no cause and effect here, or even a correlation; he attempts to draw clean lines around the stories to obscure his responsibility.
During the portion of the press conference when Loh discusses Maryland’s football culture, one gets the odd sense that he’s a passive observer of his own university. Like a scrupulous news anchor, he consistently refers to “allegations” against the program — at one point, he decries “bullying” and “intimidation,” then immediately backtracks to clarify that he means “alleged bullying” and “alleged intimidation” — and like a defense lawyer, he invokes the need for “fair process.”
Loh, of course, is not a news anchor, and he is not currently practicing law. He’s the president of the university. His house is a leisurely walk away from the football practice facilities, and Durkin is one of his highest-profile employees. That Loh — or at least one of his subordinates — could have kept close tabs on the football program and worked to prevent an abusive culture from forming in the first place doesn’t seem to cross his mind. The notion that the buck stops with him is absent.
A particularly disturbing part of Loh’s spiel comes as he’s outlining the allegations against the program. First, he praises the university’s reporting system, and expresses his pride that students and staff come forward with “lots and lots of expressions of concern and issues and problems.” Then, he issues the standard defense for scandals like these: swearing that he learned about the allegations through the media.
Of course it makes sense for Loh to claim ignorance — the alternative would be that he knew and did nothing — but framing it like this is implicit victim-blaming. The message here is that the university’s reporting system is working just fine, and football players are to blame for not taking advantage of it. He never stops to ask why they didn’t come forward, or why they might not have trusted the university to deliver justice. In Loh’s mind, the system cannot fail, it can only be failed.
This portion of the press conference concludes with two classic Loh moves: He says a bunch of words like “values,” “respect” and “dignity,” and he announces the creation of a task force. Fine. But platitudes won’t erase Loh’s massive failure of courage, and neither will a commission. Only a dramatic shift in course — or a new university president — could do that.
Last year, while discussing the University of North Carolina’s scandal-plagued basketball team, Loh said, “As president, I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes. One of them is an athletic scandal. It blows up, it blows up the university, its reputation, it blows up the president.”
He was right. The University of Maryland may never recover from the death of Jordan McNair. Loh’s reputation certainly won’t. This university — its students, its teachers, its athletes — deserve better leadership than this.
Max Foley-Keene, opinion editor, is a sophomore government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.