A closer look at the culture of Maryland football

On August 11, 2018, as additional information and details began to emerge surrounding the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair on May 29th, I shared on social media that I was ashamed of Maryland, one of my alma maters.

The fact that McNair's death was pointless and wholly avoidable is obvious, and hardly a revelation at all. But, what the player's death and the months thereafter illustrate are the addictive, insidious, destructive, and systematic nature of organizations that are tearing people down rather than building them up.

To put it simply, if we-as organizational leaders-do not learn from this moment, we are doomed to repeat it, even when-or rather, especially when-those organizations are the ones that mean the most to us, such as what the University of Maryland has meant to me.

For almost 20 years, the Counseling and Personnel Services graduate specialty, which was my program from 2002 to 2004, has ranked number one in the United States. The program's ranking was surpassed only by the challenging nature of the program, and I am proud of how much I grew as a professional and as a person in those two years. Throughout my time there, I became close with some of the most passionate, talented, and values-driven people I have ever met.

During those two years, I also was a football season ticket holder, and I proudly cheered on the Terrapins each Fall. Last year, I was one of the few Maryland fans in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, watching D.J. Moore tear through the Gophers defense. (And, for what it's worth, I love the Maryland pride helmets.)

In addition, I purchased some new Maryland gear this year, some of the first Terrapins paraphernalia I purchased since graduating in 2004. Last night, I wore my Maryland hat and polo as I accompanied my youngest son to his first ever football practice. When I realized where I was, what I was wearing, and whom I was with, I immediately wanted to go home and change clothes.

But, as much as Maryland is (rightfully) being criticized and scrutinized from every direction, the truth is that this could have happened almost anywhere. The culture described by the countless media who have descended on College Park, MD, exists in companies, organizations, and teams across the country and around the world. Those cultures may or may not mandate sets of 110-yard sprints in excessive heat, causing body temperatures to reach 106 degrees, but that doesn't mean those cultures are any less destructive, dysfunctional, or even deadly.

In his book entitled, The Lucifer Effect, psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo identified five factors that can cause average, ordinary people to do destructive, evil things.

  • Authority: A separation of newer members and older members according to an arbitrary set of roles and rules. 
  • Deindividuation: Costumes, darkness, and other devices that promote anonymity.
  • Dehumanization: The minimization of a victim’s humanity.
  • Sleep deprivation and time perspective: The disruption of sleep and imposition of tedious activities, which limit the ability of the victim to maintain a sense of identity beyond the current setting.
  • Social approval: A need for acceptance and to be a team player. 

Let's look at how each of these factors may have played a role in the culture at Maryland and McNair's tragic death.

Authority: 

Although the authority of Coach DJ Durkin and Strength and Conditioning Coach Rick Court are obvious with their positions, one of the most interesting parts of the ESPN story is the pair's reported effect on Head Athletic Trainer Wes Robinson.

Once described as "meek and mild-mannered" throughout a tenure beginning in 2006, former staff members described how Robinson's approach and attitude changed to match those of Durkin and Court, becoming more aggressive and oppressive.

Deindividuation: 

Of the five factors identified by Zimbardo, deindividuation, which allows those in positions of power to have an amount of anonymity through costumes, darkness, our other means, is the only one that has not been apparent from the reports that have emerged to date.

Dehumanization: 

The examples from the ESPN story that illustrate dehumanization are impossible to number, but the most damning statement came from one of the current players, who said, "It shows a cultural problem that Jordan knew that if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood, he would be targeted. He had to go until he couldn't."

Sleep deprivation and time perspective: 

Although Zimbardo mentions only sleep deprivation and time perspective, the same effect also can be achieved by manipulating one's food intake. In one instance, a player who was trying to lose weight reportedly was forced to eat candy bars while watching his teammates work out, while others have said they were forced to eat until the point of vomiting, all while playing an extremely physically demanding sport.

By manipulating a player's food intake and nutrition in such extreme ways, especially when the player is engaged in extreme physical activity, the impact on the player's ability to engage his critical thinking skills is minimized, as it is when subjected to sleep deprivation and tedious tasks.

Social approval: 

According to current and former players, Durkin implemented a program known as the Champions Club, a way for the coaches to recognize those who met their expectations, and to penalize those who did not.

"As soon as you sit out a run, you feel a little dizzy or light-headed, you're not in Champions Club anymore," a former player said.

The existence of any one of these factors does not guarantee that an organization's culture is destructive or dysfunctional, but they can serve as a "canary in a coal mine," an early warning that the organization may be moving down a dangerous road.

As evidenced by McNair's tragic death at the University of Maryland, it may not be enough for one person to raise their voice or leave the team. But rather, it oftentimes requires a sustained effort by many people to change the organization's culture in a direction where all of its members are being built up rather than being torn down.