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What is Learned from the McNair Tragedy at the University of Maryland?

By Doyice Cotten

We have all read about the University of Maryland football player, Jordan McNair, who collapsed in a May football practice and his tragic death about two weeks later. Dr. Rod Walters was hired to investigate the event, the University football program, and the athletic training protocols followed.

In September, Dr. Walters completed his investigation and issued a report. This report presented a timeline of events. This timeline (reported in Athleticbusiness.com) follows:


4:40 p.m.: The practice begins with team members performing 10 110-yard sprints in what the university described as a “basic conditioning test.” McNair completes seven of the sprints, but is unable to finish any of the remaining three in less than 19 seconds — the benchmark for offensive linemen.

4:53 p.m.: McNair reports cramping.

5:22 p.m.: McNair is removed from the field in a motorized cart and is treated in the athletic training room for 23 minutes.

5:26 p.m.: McNair managed to walk into the team training room, though he complained of cramping in his lower back.

5:50 p.m.: McNair begins yelling at athletic trainers, an indication of a change in mental status consistent with exertional heatstroke.

5:52 p.m.: Head athletic trainer Wes Robinson instructs athletic trainer Steve Nordwall to contact emergency medical services. Nordwall instead contacts team physician Valerie Cothran, who tells Nordwall to call 911.

5:55 p.m.: Nordwall calls 911, more than an hour after the onset of symptoms. McNair goes into seizure, his jaw clenched and his body convulsing. His airway is obstructed by a “brown foamy sputum.”

6:02 p.m.: A second 911 call is placed.

6:27 p.m.: McNair is in an ambulance en route to the hospital — more than 90 minutes after first exhibiting symptoms.

Trainers Robinson and Nordwall were placed on leave; Coach Durkin was placed on leave. They still are at the time of this writing. Strength coach, Court, resigned.

Some factors that contributed to the incident were:

  • The practice session was forced by construction to be moved from the stadium to the practice fields.
  • Trainers had to rush equipment, water, and hydration products to the fields prior to practice.
  • Each player received a gallon of water before practice; McNair’s gallon was found unopened in his locker.
  • Robinson was quoted to shout “tell [McNair] to get the f*** up” during the workout and that players should “drag his ass across the field.”
  • Two teammates helped McNair to finish the tenth sprint.
  • Players indicated that injured players were usually placed in “The Pit,” somewhere to be avoided at all costs.
  • A major staff mistake was the failure to administer a cold plunge to McNair upon the first signs of heatstroke.

Athleticbusiness.com reported that Jon Solomon, editorial director at The Aspen Institute, a non-profit think tank, tweeted the following.

Some lessons from McNair’s tragic death:

  1. Have cold water immersion available on the field and done immediately when symptoms arise. This means cold tubs. This is widely known by athletic training community and a complete failure by Maryland.
  2. Have a hydration/medical emergency plan at every venue. Maryland changed venues at the last minute for May 29 workout and was unprepared. To all CFB programs: You have a ton of facilities; do you have legit medical plans at each one?
  3. Athletic trainers must build trust with players. Some Maryland players described an untrusting environment. They have to believe trainers care about their best interest instead of yelling “drag his ass off the field” when symptoms arise.


This post was taken primarily from the Athleticbusiness.com post referenced earlier.  The reader is also referred to the report of Dr. Walters published in the Washington Post. The report is very detailed, including 35 observations, 17 recommendations, and 74 pages of information. All schools having athletic programs would do well to look at it as a risk management guide for protecting players.

It is unknown at this time how this situation will turn out. Certainly a lawsuit is coming with plenty of defendants with deep pockets and enough negligence, gross negligence, or worse to go around.

Photo Credit: Thanks to  Jess Johnson   via Flickr.

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