If I asked you to describe the quintessential college head football coach, you’d tell me about a man, most likely one who is middle-age and white, wearing a headset and a hoodie or a polo shirt (depending on the team you root for) while pacing a sideline.
Behind a microphone and in front of cameras, he’d be folksy, stoic unless he’s angry, probably attends church and lets you know it, and is sparse with his words but well-versed in vague coach-speak about teamwork, his love of the game, and the toughness, the effort, the discipline, the pride, the grit with which his teams play.
You might believe he spends endless hours at practices, drawing up plays and recruiting. He likely makes good money, but you’d probably feel obligated to say that he does what he does because he wants to make the lives of these young players better, help mold them into men with good characters. He is, overall, a good man who has dedicated his life to the sport.
And so, when a college football coach makes harmful decisions, exploits the bodies and labor of his players or brushes aside someone vulnerable or less powerful, we struggle to make sense of this behavior, even if we understand that this coach is operating inside of a giant money-making machine of toxic masculinity that flattens anyone who fails to win enough games or to make boosters happy. In order for us to imagine him doing a bad thing, we first must overcome our ingrained belief that to be a coach is the same as being a good person.
We must overcome our ingrained belief that being a coach is the same as being a good person.
It is time to rewrite this narrative. We need a new story because the one we’ve become used to provides way too much protection to powerful men who use their authority to their advantage in order to disenfranchise, abuse and manipulate the people they have power over.
How else do you explain the tragedy at University of Maryland under the leadership of their head football coach, D.J. Durkin?
In May, 19-year-old Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed on the field after struggling to do wind sprints during an off-season practice session. It took about 30 minutes for trainers to take him off the field, another 30 after that to call for an ambulance, and yet another 30 before the ambulance left for the hospital. Just over two weeks later, McNair died from preventable heatstroke that no one in the Maryland football program tried to prevent.
The fallout from the death of a university student from an extreme workout overseen on university property by university employees took two external investigations and about five months to play out. The recent report from one of those investigations found that the program had “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
The investigators, of course, wrote, “we believe [Durkin’s] concern for his players’ welfare is genuine.” The Washington Post noted that “the sentiment from players varied,” and included some players who believed Durkin should not return and former players stating that he should never coach again.
The Board of Regents didn’t want Durkin to go and advocated for him, reportedly threatening the president’s job if he fired the coach. They also didn’t want to punish the trainers whose failures led directly to McNair’s death. If you are under the impression that this had to do with winning, let me assure you that Durkin’s 10-15 record at Maryland could not have been the reason for this cowardly move. Regardless, when the investigation concluded, Durkin was reinstated as head football coach.
The good news is we are getting better at seeing through this facade about coaches. Protests immediately greeted Durkin’s reinstatement, including from Maryland’s governor, university alumni, members of the media, students at the school and players on his own squad who walked out of a team meeting.
And so, the university president fired Durkin late last month, days after reinstating him. Last week, they fired two of the trainers who failed in their treatment of McNair (Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach who oversaw that tragic practice in May, resigned back in August).
It's not only coaches who benefit from this kind of thinking that one’s chosen profession says something positive about their inherent character.
And it is not only coaches who benefit from the kind of thinking that one’s chosen profession says something positive about a person’s inherent character.
No matter how many reports reveal that police lie, we mostly take their accounts of events, even those involving police violence. Too many doctors across the country can be classified as “predatory physicians” but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that there are a whole host of ways that their behavior is swept aside even if reported to authorities (Larry Nassar is perhaps the most obvious case). One thinks about the horrific and huge ongoing reckoning in the Catholic Church, or the continued problem of gendered violence among soldiers.
Enough with this. We have to begin to sketch out new narratives about who college football coaches are (or, at the least, who they could be). We must question our assumptions every time they crop up because these assumptions favor the people who already have power, who often have money and normally a whole host of other privileges. The least we can do is remove this one other layer of protection from their rather bulky defenses.
We have a long way to go before we finally take control of this. But the toughness, the effort, the discipline, the pride, the grit that goes into this work will be worth it in the end. Because what really are we preserving otherwise? A system that finds it hard to punish someone whose program failed to prevent the preventable death of a college student under his care. And that is unacceptable.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”