Array of Critics Hit Reported U. of Md. Settlement With Ex-Football Coach

The University of Maryland is drawing criticism for its decision to reach a lucrative settlement with a football coach whose hard-charging style is under scrutiny following the practice-field death of a player.
Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned on Tuesday, becoming the first person connected to the Terrapin football program to depart College Park in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death.
McNair, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman offensive lineman, collapsed on May 29 after running wind sprints with the team. He died on June 13. According to media reports, there was a delay of unknown duration before team staff called 911.
No cause of death has been announced, but ESPN reported he died of heatstroke. In a statement to Maryland Matters, the University of Maryland athletic department confirmed that it accepted Court’s “resignation,” but the school would not confirm the financial settlement.  Maryland football coach D.J. Durkin, who is currently under suspension pending investigations of player Jordan McNair’s death  Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel posted on Twitter this week that, “Rick Court’s settlement with Maryland is a lump sum of $315,000, which is two-thirds of what he was due for the remainder of his contract. There’s no mitigation going forward. There’s also a mutual release of all claims by the school and Court.” Three investigations are reportedly under way in the wake of McNair’s death — one by the school into the failure to treat him more quickly after he collapsed, one by the attorney hired by the player’s family, and a third by the university into the general “culture” of the football program.   Why would Maryland give someone at the center of three different investigations a large payout before the probes have been concluded?  “It is outrageous for the University of Maryland to have enough cause to cut ties with Strength and Conditioning Coach Rick Court over his verbally abusive and dangerous conditioning practices and still give him a payout of $315,000,” said former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor.  “That money could pay for a year’s worth of tuition and fees for 30 Maryland students.” There is broad agreement among legal experts and members of the General Assembly contacted by Maryland Matters that the university is hoping to buy Court’s silence and cooperation. One prominent former official who is following the unfolding scandal said, “It certainly looks like hush money.” “Schools don’t pay that kind of money unless they get something in return,” said attorney Seth Berenzweig, CEO of BL Sports & Media Group. “A school is not going to pay $300,000 just to say, ‘OK, we accept your resignation for a catastrophic injury. Goodbye.’” “I can only imagine that they paid him off because they figured that if they fired him there’d be a lawsuit… and it would keep Maryland in the headlines,” said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), whose district borders the College Park campus.  Said attorney and sports blogger Tom Threlkeld: “We don’t have all the facts yet. And until we do, I don’t understand why they would try to make some sort of agreement with Court, unless the school benefits in some way from paying him off, maybe keeping him quiet.” Zachary Bolno, director of strategic communication and media relations for the U-Md. Department of Athletics, declined to answer questions. He instructed a reporter seeking a copy of Court’s contract to file a Public Information Act request. A local attorney familiar with university policies and procurement — speaking on condition of anonymity — acknowledged that this use of state tax dollars won’t sit well with everyone. He said school officials likely agreed to the settlement to avoid looking “paralyzed, [like] they can’t make a decision.” “The school says, ‘Listen, we’ve got a problem. We’re going to make this decision and we’re going to make it right now,’” the lawyer said. “[They said] ‘We’re going to excise this problem and we’re going to wall it off — and we’re going to move on. We’re not going to have people saying that we’ve been indecisive.’” Will the payout to Court, if that’s what it was, buy his silence if the investigation reveals there was serious wrongdoing on the part of team personnel in how they conducted practices — or why they took so long to summon emergency care when McNair collapsed? Experts say it’s not clear. “This doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Threlkeld.  Berenzeig called the school’s apparent strategy “bizarre.” Added Jealous: “Either the university is signing horrible contracts that force them into unaffordable buy-outs or they are putting a broken athletics program before the safety and education of their students. Regardless, this payout is unacceptable.” Asked about the possible payout this week at a conference in Ocean City, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said, “I don’t know anything about it, and I talked to the chairman of the Board of the Regents and he didn’t know anything about it.” Hogan called McNair’s death “a tragic situation.” He said he is pushing for “a complete and thorough investigation as quickly as possible,” but that he is not participating in daily conference calls that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents is holding, because he does not want to “interfere.” Court was hired by head coach D.J. Durkin, who has been suspended by the school pending the outcome of the investigations now under way. Court was one of Durkin’s first hires when he came to the school in 2015 and the head coach lavished praise on him in multiple interviews. Though McNair collapsed in late May and died in mid-June, it wasn’t until an ESPN report earlier this month, detailing the football program’s “toxic culture,” generated national headlines and triggered a firestorm of criticism of both men.   According to the network, the Maryland program included alleged mistreatment and humiliation of players. Coaches relied on fear and intimidation, and training sessions went beyond the normal practices of a football program, it was reported. 
Attempts to reach Court were unsuccessful. In a statement posted on Twitter, he said: “The football student-athletes’ mental and physical health remains my number one priority; thus I am stepping down to allow the team to heal and move forward.” He also said: “I will continue to cooperate with the University’s investigations and I will be transparent with inquiries while respecting the legal process.” Maryland’s season opener is Sept. 1 against the University of Texas. Interim head coach Matt Canada said this week that the health and safety of his players are his “primary focus.” His first practice was open to the media and there was plenty of water on hand.
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.
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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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