Last week, when The Washington Post ran a front-page sports section story on the sad scandal currently enveloping the University of Maryland football program, which included a headline that read “Our Players’ Health and Safety is No. 1,” there was an equally telling story tucked deeper in the newspaper.
That article, “Manassas Park Halts Varsity Football,” detailed how a Prince William County high school decided to suspend its varsity football program for the 2018 season because only 15 players were showing up for preseason practices.
Only a few days earlier, Park View High School in Loudoun County announced it also had dropped varsity football this year because only 18 players turned up for tryouts.
It’s not difficult to connect the dots between a college football program under siege following the tragic death of a player from heat stroke and the lack of interest in high school football.
Events similar to those unfolding at the University of Maryland have surely led to a nearly five percent drop in high school football enrollment nationwide from 2006 to 2016, according to the last available figures compiled by the National Federation of High School Football Associations.
Football participation is expected to decrease further in the coming years as concerns about football-induced injuries—particularly life-shattering concussions—mount and the financial cost of equipment and participation continues to rise.
There is both statistical and anecdotal evidence that many parents are simply unwilling to allow their children to play football, at all levels of the game, starting with the peewees. The consequences may not seem apparent now, but the talent pool for both college and pro football should continue to shrink, and that does not bode well for the sport’s future.
After what happened at Maryland to the late 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair on May 29, and his subsequent death 15 days later, would any mom and dad in their right mind ever allow their son to play for Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin?
University regents are now apparently in the process of deciding Durkin’s fate. He’s currently on paid administrative leave, but there really can be only one outcome, especially in light of the circumstances of McNair’s death, including a failure of the medical staff to treat him properly after he collapsed following an intense 45-minute workout. Damning published reports have also raised concerns about the head coach’s football program and its alleged abusive culture involving dismissed strength and conditioning coach Rick Court.
Maryland President Wallace D. Loh also has properly come under fire for rejecting a proposal a year ago that would have overhauled and fundamentally changed how health care was delivered to athletes to better comply with NCAA recommendations, according to The Post. Durkin should not be the only one that should be rolling down Route 1 and all the way out of town.
Maryland has confronted athletic scandals before, most notably the drug overdose of basketball star Len Bias in 1986. But the McNair incident is a whole different story, arguably an even more egregious example of how so much of big-time college athletics remains a swampy cesspool and how the almighty dollar still reigns supreme.
If Maryland’s regents really want to do the right thing, they’ll fire the coach, fire the athletic director, and fire the president as well. Then they’d insist the school take a timeout from football, too, suspend the program for a couple of years, honor all current football scholarships, and make a fresh start in 2020.
That last idea—starting over—won’t happen. There’s too much cash involved.
After all, wasn’t it money that prompted Maryland to leave the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014?
The school could make many more millions from the Big Ten Network than it could get from the ACC. Maryland would be the beneficiary of larger visiting team gate receipts from mega-stadiums in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and its football team might even have a chance to compete in bigger, better, and more lucrative Big Ten-affiliated bowl games in the postseason.
Under Durkin, Maryland has a 10-15 record, but that’s not what he’ll be remembered for in College Park. On his watch, a young man died unnecessarily. The buck had to stop with him. Were the Big Ten bucks really worth it?
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a Washington Post sportswriter, columnist, and editor.
Photo by Hillel Steinberg on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.