Details from ESPN.com’s investigative look at the “toxic culture” fostered within Maryland football include allegations of: “humiliation;” physical abuse using food; and strength coach Rick Court essentially using weight equipment as weapons against players.
The allegations are quite grim on their own. Add the most important and tragic detail — 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair dying this summer due to heatstroke — and the report’s implications become downright sinister.
And yet, the detail South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp commented on passionately when asked Saturday focused on the anonymous source relaying these heinous allegations to ESPN.
“There’s no credibility in anonymous sources. If that former staffer had any guts, why didn’t he put his name on that?”
After taking a shot at the multiple staffers and players who spoke to the multiple ESPN.com reporters on this story, Muschamp partook in America’s favorite pastime in 2018: attacking the media.
“I think it’s a lack of journalistic integrity to print things with anonymous sources.”
Kudos to Coach Boom for not stringing together the words, “FAKE NEWS,” I suppose.
Snark aside, I understand Muschamp’s position. Maryland coach D.J. Durkin — placed on administrative leave Saturday as the university continues to investigate McNair’s death — worked with Muschamp throughout Muschamp’s tenure as Florida head coach. It’s natural to reflexively defend those to whom we are close.
But of the most corrosive tendencies damaging sports in 2018 — hell, damaging the entire American culture — digging into a opinion regardless of corroborating facts ranks near the top.
You may have noticed a dearth of coverage of the ongoing Urban Meyer-Zach Smith drama here at The Open Man. Ditto any kind of take on yesterday’s stomach-turning Maryland football expose. The sensitivity of both situations require restraint until the facts
Will Muschamp might take a cue and, in this instance, respond to the reporter’s question with a simple: “I enjoyed my time with Coach Durkin in Florida, but until I know more details about the situation, I can’t comment.”
Instead, Muschamp took a clear side; a side that becomes awfully difficult to defend should Durkin be found at all liable in Jordan McNair’s death.
This issue of both individuals and groups taking a definitive side armed with only a portion of the details or context festers in a nasty form of sports tribalism. It manifested Monday when Ohio State fans rallied in support of Urban Meyer, some carrying signs that, while decrying journalism ethics, face-palmingly blame ESPN for the initial reports on the Zach Smith firing.
Brett McMurphy was laid off from ESPN more than a year ago and posted the report to his Facebook account.
The rally for Urban Meyer at Ohio Stadium pic.twitter.com/4pmRS27X1p
— Ari Wasserman (@AriWasserman) August 6, 2018
That Ezekiel Elliott’s father became the de facto spokesperson of the rally crystallized the tone-deaf nature. The NFL suspended Elliott last season for domestic violence.
Certainly, the few hundred Buckeyes fans demonstrating in support of Meyer amid a fluid situation don’t reflect the entirety, or even a majority, of the Ohio State fan base. Still, it doesn’t take a majority to foster a toxic environment of harassment in the social media era.
Mentioning The Open Man’s restraint on commentary in the Meyer situation wasn’t intended as a pat on the back; on the contrary, I reflect on past instances of the obligation to produce content for content’s sake on sensitive subjects still lacking all key details.
If Will Muschamp insisted on offering media commentary, his platform would have been better served targeting the culture of having to offer a take, rather than targeting journalists genuinely reporting and investigating.
To the South Carolina coach’s other point, Muschamp unintentionally opened the floor for conversation on another of sport’s more toxic cultural elements.
Perhaps the four staffers and players anonymously quoted at ESPN.com do so without anonymity. Maybe they go directly to the athletic director or head coach.
As someone who has been an anonymous source, it isn’t just a guy making stuff up, it’s someone who has to protect themselves but does want to get the truth out.
— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) August 11, 2018
Players aren’t guaranteed their scholarships. Coaching gigs, especially for a low-and-entry-level staff, are difficult to come by. Fear can be motivating, as the cliche goes.
A past college football whistle-blower, who put his name to the allegations that precipitated Tim Beckman’s ouster at Illinois (but only after retiring), explained it well:
We don’t talk about how we’re mistreated because we’re then “not a team player” or “soft” but no one pays the bill when we’re gone.
— Simon Cvijanovic (@SimonCvijanovic) May 10, 2015
A culture that still lionizes the abusive approach of “Bear” Bryant with his “Junction Boys” is not inherently designed to accept complaints. While it would be nice to assume we have evolved in the past 60 years, remember that George O’Leary continued to coach for another four years after UCF was found liable in Ereck Plancher’s death.