USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg gives his biggest surprises and takeaways from the top 25 ranked teams in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
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It is difficult to know whether the systematic intimidation, dehumanization and emasculation of college football players at Maryland as alleged in a comprehensive ESPN report is isolated to a few Neanderthal coaches or shockingly widespread at programs across the country.
Sadly, we only know at Maryland because offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June, which prompted questions about whether the methods of strength and conditioning coach Rick Court were extreme and, furthermore, whether the tone set by head coach D.J. Durkin encouraged a culture where the warning signs of exhaustion and physical distress were ignored.
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But it wouldn’t necessarily take tragic consequences to expose this kind of behavior if schools weren’t running their football programs like secret societies in the first place.
Maryland, you see, was like most college programs these days. Aside from a few minutes here or there, practices and workouts were closed to all eyeballs other than those who work for the athletic department. Assistant coaches and staffers were generally off-limits to the media, and access to the players was highly managed. If something inappropriate was happening inside the program, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to observe it.
Over the last several years, coaches have been allowed that leeway to reject the media’s role as a watchdog because they feel — and perhaps rightly so — that it doesn’t benefit them to operate under that kind of scrutiny. And certainly an athletic director, who is technically the boss but might make 20% of the football coach’s salary, is in no position to argue. Nor is there any pressure from the public, which isn’t disposed to cheer on the media generally and has largely dismissed complaints from reporters about access.
But it’s become clear that the secrecy with which these overly powerful coaches are allowed to run their programs has become a burden on the sport, the potential safety of players, their own careers and the schools for whom they profess so much loyalty.
Do you think Rick Court, the Maryland strength coach who allegedly threw weights or objects at players as a motivational tactic, would do that if there were eyeballs on him? Do you think coaches generally would engage in the kind of verbal abuse alleged at Maryland if there were reporters around to ask questions? Do you think players would be as afraid to come forward if locker rooms were open and relationships with reporters were built?
That’s not to suggest more media access would have saved McNair. It’s impossible to know. But what we do know is that there’s an utter lack of checks and balances over what goes on inside these programs and how players are treated.
Though the NCAA attempts to set some limits on offseason workouts, there’s still a lot of latitude and very little difference in practice between what’s voluntary and what’s required. As long as college athletes don’t have the protection of a union, the only real oversight over how they’re treated comes from the athletic department, which has little incentive to actually investigate wrongdoing by its coaching staff unless they’re losing games.
So if schools are struggling with that kind of oversight of their program — and it’s pretty easy to see how they might — somebody else needs to do it.
In fact, in the wake of this tragedy at Maryland, they should invite it. Open up everything. Let the public see. Allow sunshine to be the disinfectant on a sport where many of the motivational tactics and physical challenges that were acceptable in the 1970s look like abuse today.
Some people, of course, will lament that the culture has changed. They’ll call the players snowflakes. They’ll even suggest, as South Carolina coach Will Muschamp did on Saturday, that those who spoke anonymously with ESPN about the troubling Maryland culture were disgruntled because they didn’t get playing time.
Doesn’t a comment like that kind of make you wonder what’s happening at South Carolina in those super secret practices nobody’s allowed to see?
And that’s the whole problem. Why should we wonder in the first place?
We largely don’t have to in the NFL, where the league mandates that training camp practices, portions of every regular season practice and some offseason workouts and mini-camps are open to the media as well as the locker room for player interviews four days a week for 45 minutes.
If something is wrong, it’ll get out.
In college, however, the image a program presents is highly choreographed. Because there are no standard rules for media access, programs have become — with a few exceptions — a facsimile of Alabama, where it’s practically impossible to observe anything substantive. What’s left are vapid soundbites and whiffs of information, revealing nothing about how the sausage is getting made.
But the issue fans, athletics directors and college presidents across the country should be reckoning with today is whether those barriers are complicit in covering up something ugly in their own programs, as it did at Maryland until someone died.
It’s not hard to understand why coaches want the media to stay out of their business. But in some cases, they might merely be preventing questions that desperately need to be asked.